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"What seems to be lost on the President is that values are not something one professes; values are established through one's actions," Bachman writes. (Photo: Barack Obama/flickr/cc)

From Torturing to Killing Innocent People: This Is Who We Are

Jeff Bachman

Following the long awaited release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's "Committee Study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program," President Barack Obama proclaimed, "Throughout our history, the United States of America has done more than any other nation to stand up for freedom, democracy, and the inherent dignity and human rights of people around the world. At the same time, some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values."

Obama would ultimately conclude, "No nation is perfect. But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better. Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today's report can help us leave these techniques where they belong--in the past. Today is also a reminder that upholding the values we profess doesn't make us weaker, it makes us stronger and that the United States of America will remain the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known."

I include these lengthy remarks because this is not an analysis of the findings detailed in the torture report. There are plenty of articles that detail such analysis. Rather, this is a call for an end to the high-minded, sanctimonious rhetoric that we are constantly bombarded with. I am tired of listening to our officials say things that are simply and obviously in direct contradiction with what we actually do. Enough is enough. It is time to stop pretending we are something that we are not.

President Obama claimed that some of the actions that were taken (note past tense), were contrary to our values. What seems to be lost on the President is that values are not something one professes; values are established through one's actions. Under the Bush administration, torture was systematic, brutal, widespread, and patently illegal.

Morally, our professed values would require nothing less than the absolute banishment of every single individual responsible for the torture program. Those responsible should never again be allowed to appear on the Sunday morning political shows to tout their "expertise." No longer should these individuals be given a soapbox to stand on to profess that they did nothing wrong or that what they did was necessary.

The only box those responsible for torture should be given is the witness box. Our professed values and our legal obligations require that those responsible for the torture program be prosecuted and, if guilty, punished. The United Nations Convention against Torture requires the prosecution of individuals for torture when there is sufficient evidence for doing so. Clearly, there is no shortage of evidence.

While sitting before the UN Committee against Torture, Mary McLeod, Principal Deputy Legal Advisor at the Department of State, said, "As President Obama has acknowledged, we crossed the line and we take responsibility for that." I'm not sure where McLeod gets her definition of "responsibility." My understanding is that taking responsibility requires more than simply saying the word. Yet, consistent with his previous decision to "look forward, not backwards," Obama wants to leave all this immorality and criminality "in the past."

It is almost comical how President Obama pretends that the only actions taken since the tragic attacks on 9/11 that undermine our professed values occurred during President Bush's terms in office. Despite Obama's repeated claims that he "ended" torture, his administration continued to imprison individuals in Afghan detention facilities fully aware of the systematic torture that was taking place at the facilities. There is also the ongoing force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay. Jon Eisenberg, a human rights attorney who defends one of the prisoners, believes that when combining the varied practices associated with the force-feeding of detainees, "it all adds up to torture." Obama simultaneously claims that force-feeding is humane and refuses to allow the video footage of force-feeding to be viewed by the public.

We know from the torture report, innocent people were detained and tortured. We also know that innocent people have been killed by President Obama's drone strike program. Perhaps it was overlooked or maybe it was simply ignored, but the UK-based human rights NGO Reprieve published a report at the end of November. Reprieve investigated the numerous attempts to kill individuals labeled high-value targets. Its findings demonstrate the moral depravity of President Obama's drone strike program.

According to the report, "In Pakistan, 24 men were reported as killed or targeted multiple times. Missed strikes on these men killed 874 people, including 142 children. In Yemen, 17 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times. Missile strikes on these men killed 273 others and accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties and 100% of all recorded child deaths. In targeting Ayman al Zawahiri, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults....It took the US six attempts to kill Qari Hussain, a Pakistani target. During these attempts, 128 people were killed, including 13 children."

It is not surprising that the drone strike program kills innocent people. Just as the interrogation methods (torture) used by the Bush administration were immoral and illegal, so too are the methods President Obama employs in his drone strike program. The Obama administration has repeatedly attacked first responders and rescuers when they converge on the scene of an initial attack. Those attending funerals have also been attacked. President Obama has personally authorized the use of "signature" strikes, which are strikes launched without first determining whether the person(s) "deserved" to die. In the process, President Obama has violated international humanitarian law and human rights law, and has arbitrarily killed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocents.

These are our values because our values are defined not by what we say, but by what we do. American exceptionalism, a favored claim of President Obama's, has nothing to do with our "willingness to openly confront our past." It is a catchall justification for our immoral and illegal actions around the world. We can either accept this reality and stop pretending we are something that we are not or we can be part of a movement that accepts nothing less than bringing our actions in line with our professed values.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Jeff Bachman

Jeff Bachman is a professor of human rights and co-director of Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs at American University’s School of International Service.

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