Monday, April 11, 2011

Who Cares About Torture?

And here I thought I was done writing about C.S. Lewis and politics.

Barack Obama ran for president on a platform of principled opposition to the Bush administration's gross abuses of executive power: its secrecy, torture, extraordinary rendition, ill-conceived wars. His conduct on these fronts as President have been a grim disappointment: Guantanamo is to remain open indefinitely, Khalid Sheik Mohammad will be tried by military tribunal, Bradley Manning is receiving inhumane treatment without even having been convicted, and we are now involved in a third war in the Muslim world (fourth, if one counts the drone strikes we've been carrying out in Yemen).

For the sake of argument, let's grant that Obama's hands are tied by Congress and other political considerations (except when it comes to Libya, in which such an argument is absurd on its face). The defense is actually damning in its tacit admission that civil liberties are not important. I don't simply mean unimportant to the electorate, which is generally not much interested in politics anyway, but also to Obama's defenders.

It's true that for liberals, Obama is on balance better than the Republicans on whatever pet issues one cares to rattle off: health care, gay rights, education. But not all issues are created equal. The abuses of executive power radically upset the checks and balances system, and the torture issue in particular, moral considerations aside, undermines the very notion of a state built on the rule of law. By not prosecuting the architects of the Bush torture policy, Obama has reduced it to just another policy preference.

These are fundamental issues, and it is frankly disturbing to read and hear people all but say, "Well, yeah, starting military conflicts without even asking Congress and forcing a prisoner to strip for his guards is wrong, but other than that..."

This is where Lewis comes in. From The Screwtape Letters:

...Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity, or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest of merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.

The denunciations of George Bush and "enhanced interrogation" were vociferous and unequivocal, while the response to Obama's complicity in the whole ugly mess is an excuse, half-muttered, that he's not as bad as the Republicans. At least they're honest about their blood thirst.

All of this is not to say one should not vote for Obama next year. Politics is the art of the possible, a particularly narrow category in America's two-party system. But let's not pretend Obama is blameless. His is a profound failure of moral leadership on a critical issue. For most of us, that's not a deal-breaker. But if that isn't, then what, if anything, should be? And if not, why not?

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