The infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, which surfaced in 2003, were, for most of us, the first indication that something was not quite right with the United States’ war on terrorism. Stories of extraordinary rendition, of harsh off-shore prison camps and the abuse of terrorist suspects, once just hushed whispers, reached a crescendo by the time Sergeant Joseph Darby alerted the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division that the 372nd Military Police Company may be, to put it mildly, mistreating captives.
On April 30, 2003, Seymour Hersh, the reporter who revealed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam 30 years before, published the smoking gun. As Condoleezza Rice saidÂ one year earlier in justifying the Iraq war, the smoking gun may come in the form of a mushroom cloud. And this was a mushroom cloud of sorts: the horrific image, men in naked pyramids, vicious dogs threatening masked prisoners, and most disturbingly, a hooded man sprawled Christ-like on a stool, hooked up to electric wires, blew away the Bush administration’s moral authority and empty denials of mistreatment.
Six years on, the questions posed by those images, and the systemic brutality they hint at, took centre stage at the Ninth Annual Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate on Feb. 19.
A packed Campbell Hall was engaged, challenged and frustrated by Scott Horton and Stuart Taylor’s discussion of whether U.S. officials could be held accountable for the events of the last eight years.
The debaters, both lawyers and journalists at the forefront of the issue, grappled with the broad question of whether officials should be held accountable, and the complex legal question of whether they could be held liable.
Horton, a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine, answered the first of these questions by running through a laundry list of the Bush administration’s alleged transgressions, from torture and spying, to filling the executive branch with political hacks who rubber-stamped their actions. From “enhanced interrogation techniques,” unequivocally described by a Bush-appointed official as torture, to tainted military trials (an unprecedented judicial tragedy) since rejected by the Supreme Court, Horton steadily built his case for investigating the administration in front of a supportive crowd.
In his view, the public demanded an investigation (50 percent against 47 percent, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll), as did international legal obligations and the responsibility to set a precedent for future administrations.
Stuart Taylor, a contributing editor to Newsweek, struck back by reminding the audience of the consequences of Horton’s suggestions: Americans had to be prepared to see President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and other major figures put on trial, and likely sentenced to serve time in federal prison. While random hecklers on a college campus in California may have been supportive of the idea, the view across the country (and indeed, in the halls of Congress and the White House) might be starkly different.
Presidents have waged a war of attrition on the Constitution for hundreds of years; if investigation and jail were suddenly a realistic possibility, what effect would this have on a future Administration or the C.I.A., when faced with a security crisis? As Taylor put it, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”
As to the question of whether U.S. officials could be held accountable, Horton tried to divorce the issue from politics; if a crime is suspected, domestic and international law demands an investigation and possible prosecution.
Taylor, ever the attorney, implored the audience to “look at the law.” While the wide-ranging memos drafted by University of California law professor John Yoo (which permitted crushing the testicles of a terrorists’ child, among other things) were “wrong” and “œindefensible,” they had been withdrawn, and did not represent official administration policy.
Similarly, while the techniques used on detainees “were pretty rough,” there was no evidence of anything that would be considered torture, according to the narrow definition applied by United States law.
Horton won applause with a firm rebuttal: “The evidence exists. Investigate and you’ll find it.”
Taylor also questioned whether an investigation could be mounted without descending into partisan bickering or the special prosecutor sideshows (“the most political form of investigation”) of the ’08s and ’09s. Worse than no investigation at all, any action could become a circus viewed by at least half the nation as an illegitimate witch-hunt.
On it went, Horton painting the picture in black and white: crimes had been committed, the highest office in the land had been debased, and an investigation must follow, while Taylor found shades of grey, pointing out that prosecutors don’t pursue every crime, and instead, take the political and social consequences of a trial into account.
The crowd, enthusiastic in the beginning, quieted as the debate wore on and the complexity of the issue sunk in. Those hoping to leave the debate with a definite opinion on the matter, one way or the other, had clearly given up on the prospect. Even the hecklers thought better of further interruptions.
With the final word, Taylor hinted at the dark heart of this debate. If an investigation finds that torture took place, but that it saved lives (the British government and Israeli Supreme Court said as much when they were forced to go through the same debate in the ’70s and ’90s), then where does that leave us?
Afterward, one student summed it all up succinctly: “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”