Breaking With the President on Torture

Readers of this website know I have made no secret of my support for President Barack Obama. That support remains unflagging to this point. But politicians have one set of agendas, and the people another, so there is a time for all of us to break with our supported politicians and pressure them to do things they don’t want to do. I say this not as an apologia, but because the media’s insistence on a purely dualistic world of supporters and detractors completely obscures the meaning of the term “loyal opposition.” Opposition to your president does not necessarily presuppose hateful invectives.

Such is the case with the torture investigations. Clearly, Obama is not in favour of going forward with them. And as a practical matter, I don’t necessarily blame him: he’s not just the president, he is also a president, which means he has the power to make or break precedent in the Oval Office and so does his next successor. The precedent set here might be that a sitting president can prosecute a former president for misdeeds in office. Presidents have generally been very reluctant to do this for a simple reason: regardless of the justness of a given prosecution, the precedent leaves itself open to politically-motivated abuse down the line. Just as many of us have argued in the cases of eavesdropping and other violations of civil rights under the Bush Administration, the justness of motivation does not always outweigh the potential for abuse in the future.

And mindful as I am of that dangerous precedent, there has to be some point at which the potential threat of abuse is outweighed by the clear danger presented by the violations of the former administration. In this case, we’re not dealing with illegal actions that lived in a bubble, cut off from effect the moment President Bush left office. What we have is, again, a dangerous precedent that says that when a president wants to do something, all he needs is a few pliable lawyers to write grade-school legal justifications and he’s off to the races. And not just “something.” We’re talking about torturing human beings. . . on top of wrongful incarceration and illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens. Taken as a whole, the Bush Administration opened up a little slice of totalitarianism that must – must – be closed, nailed shut and boarded up forever.

And what’s more, I think that there is also a political reality right now that cannot be ignored and in this one case, should not be ignored. The same wave of realization and needful correction that brought Barack Obama to power also drives the need to redress this most awful of crimes against the American consciousness. He cannot turn that tide back without crushing himself in the process.

Between the American public’s obvious need for self-correction and the institutional need for justice, the need to break with the president and make him do something unprecedented is overwhelming. And for the first time, we see Barack Obama being overtaken by the wave rather than riding it. This is what it means to be president, sometimes. This is what it means to elect one, too. As troublesome as the situation is and as dangerous as the path before us may be, for the benefit of our president and our nation, we must continue to push him to investigate the torture policies instituted by the Bush Administration.