Why the Torture Memos Upset Me

 Posted on April 24, 2009 in Uncategorized

I got in a furious 140-character-at-a-time argument on Twitter with Mark Jakubik, author of the Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog (and the Pennsylvania Estate Planning Blog, and the Philadelphia Litigation Blog, and the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog... hrm) yesterday about waterboarding and torture. Stepping back, I had to ask myself: Why am I so upset up about the torture memos?

When we were recording a radio show today, Judge Ken Wise, arguing for waterboarding, said "it's a big world out there," as though there were things that we cloistered Americans couldn't understand.

Unlike most Americans, I've lived in that big world: I spent half of my childhood overseas. My dad worked for the CIA for 25 years, and his work took the family to postings in Germany, in India, and in Thailand. So much of my view of America is based on how it looks from outside. Way outside - in 1987, the world was much rounder than it is now, and India was a lot farther from the U.S. There was no email or internet, and mail between New Delhi and the U.S. - through the State Department - took two weeks each way.

The threat of terrorism was constant and real during my formative years overseas. The world did not change on 9/11; Americans' perception of the world changed. 9/11 taught Americans at home something that those of us abroad had known for a long time: the world is a dangerous place. Be watchful, and live your life.

We saw, in India in the 80s, people lined up early every day outside the Embassy to try to get visas to the United States; they're probably still lining up there today. They weren't there because America is safe, but because America is free.

We knew, growing up in India in the 80s, about countries that were not free. The Soviet Union, East Germany, and the rest of the Eastern Bloc, where neighbors informed on neighbors, brothers on sisters, and children on parents. Syria, Iran, Uganda, and much of the rest of the non-Western world, where brutal governments tortured accused criminals before show trials.

And we knew, we knew that America was different. America was better than that. America was the good guy. America was Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper and John Wayne. America didn't have a KGB encouraging people to inform on each other. Americans didn't torture. Good guys help the less fortunate, good guys don't pick fights, and good guys don't torture. There was never really any question about that. Did it make us less safe? The question didn't even come up. It was a matter of principle.

America is free not because of government, but despite it - because, government be damned, we hold some truths to be self-evident, and Americans have been willing to defend those principles for 233 years with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

A man needs a code to live by; so does a nation, and America isn't living by its code. Maybe these principles have been illusory from the beginning, or maybe I'm naive to hold on to them when everyone else is willing to sacrifice them to the exigencies of the imaginary post-9/11 world. But even if they never were, or no longer are, America's principles, they are still mine.

So I'm mad about the torture memos like I'm mad about our government turning the United States into a nation of informers, and for the same reason: because something entirely contrary to my principles has been done in my name.

As a criminal-defense lawyer, I'm doing what little I can about our slow decline into a nation of informants. There's something more immediate I can do about our faster decline into a nation that tortures.

I have no animus against the CIA or those who work there. While I was in high school, I used to take some of the local CIA officers' money in the Wednesday night poker game; I worked in the Office of Technical Services at CIA's New Headquarters Building for the summer after my freshman year in college. The CIA was, and no doubt still is, staffed by good people doing tough jobs well for a lot less money than they could have earned in the private sector.

That was a long time ago - more than 20 years - but some of my friends might well have been involved in torturing KSM. I'm motivated not by a desire for retribution, but for deterrence. I don't want to see more human beings put in prison if it can be avoided, but something has to be done so that our principles are not betrayed again.

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