Dropping the other shoe of national humiliation

An old story describes a king who offered a fortune and his beautiful daughter in marriage to whoever could do the most amazing thing. Various knights and performers tried, but a handsome young man blew away everyone else with a clockwork made of gold, encrusted with jewels, and covered with beautiful paintings, all his own work. The clock chimed the hours, tracked the moon and planets across the sky, forecast the weather, and played beautiful, ethereal music on bells. He was about to be given the prize when an unshaven bruiser walked in with a sledgehammer and smashed the clock to pieces. Shocked and appalled, everyone present agreed that this destruction was even more amazing then the clock.

Bush’s footpads, from Cheny down into the OLC, are moral defectives. The torture they organized, abetted, and implemented was amazing but not remarkably inconsistent with their pervasive thuggery. What could be more remarkable than the Bush gang trashing international law, civilized standards of behavior, and the international reputation of their country?

Now we know. I was worried about this last week, hoping Panetta had stepped out of the corral on his own, but it’s now about as bad as it can get: Obama has made it national policy to ignore violations of international law, human decency, and stepped on everything we’ve believed since Nuremberg, promising no prosecutions of CIA torturers and hinting at no prosecutions of their enablers and commanders. All this on the day he released the documents that nail the latter to the wall (see Jon on one implication of this). The torture was less amazing, considering the people who did it, than this outrage coming from an administration that can reasonably be held to (and promises) conventional rules of decency.

I can’t exaggerate the damage this considered, purposeful, mistake has done to an administration I tried to help elect and had a lot of hope for. Torturing people systematically is not just criminal but outrageous, unspeakable. Having orders to do it is no excuse: we need every citizen and every spook to think before obeying orders that may for whatever reason be illegal, especially orders that are cruel, vengeful, and compromise the mission: this principle is so obvious movie plots are built on its universal validity.

Spencer Ackerman is properly exercised about the memos and the policy, but wrong about the guy pouring the water. Soldiers in Iraq are not liable for an illegal war, but a soldier in Iraq ordered to pull the fingernails out of a prisoner by a sergeant or by a general is a criminal if he obeys.

Letting the authors of the most humiliating episode of a uniformly incompetent and vicious administration walk while cravenly mouthing nonsense about “looking ahead not backward” is not actually that far from the crimes themselves. It’s illegal to manage prosecutions of corruption and election fraud for political convenience, so how much worse is it to obstruct justice for really heinous offenses on grounds of political comfort, which is precisely what this is.

Here and there in Obama’s administration, never mind the next time we make a mistake at the polls, bad guys are going to tell underlings to do bad things. The president just gave them all a pass. I can’t believe I’m saying this two months into the new regime, but today’s behavior is despicable. Not a little slip or a close call that went the wrong way; despicable. Obama is meeting this week with leaders of countries not that far removed from very black days of torture and lawlessness; American moral authority restored? Not today, not until this is fixed.

UPDATE (17/IV/09): Alex Koppelman provides a ray of hope that the DOJ (and other) higherups who authorized the torture are not off the hook (H/T Wshington Monthly). I think it’s important to go after the torturers, but it’s a lot more important to prosecute the senior malefactors, and a couple of paragraphs up, I was thinking of the latter when I said authors.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.