First, a brief reminder of how the Bush administration handled the crime of torture. Let’s call it “the few bad apples excuse.”
Yesterday, Wednesday, April 13, 2009 was a sad day for the Obama administration. The President decided to reverse his administration’s pledge to release photographs of acts of torture committed by Americans, photos that could be used as further evidence of how widespread state sanctioned torture had been under Bush. But it was not his decision to hold back the photos that was patently reprehensible. Obama argued that the release of the photographs could endanger our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether one agrees with this assessment or not, it has to be taken seriously. What is not acceptable, and what is not worthy of this president, is to suggest that those who committed these acts were only a small number of individuals. Once again this places the onus on those who actually carried out the acts as opposed to the leaders who ordered and sanctioned them. In other words, Obama used a version of the “bad apples excuse” to support his decision, which is just what the Bush administration did when the photos of Abu Ghraib first appeared
The New York Times reported on the president’s press conference announcing his decision in an article, “Obama Moves to Bar Release of Detainee Abuse Photos.” Two excerpts:
“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” Mr. Obama told reporters on the South Lawn. “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.” (emphasis added)
The article then went on to quote a spokesman from the A.C.L.U.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., said the decision to fight the release of the photos was a mistake. He said officials had described them as “worse than Abu Ghraib” and said their volume, more than 2,000 images, showed that “it is no longer tenable to blame abuse on a few bad apples. These were policies set at the highest level.”
It’s not clear what Obama’s tactics are here. He is well aware of the previous administration’s culpability. Perhaps he has decided that keeping his hands clean and letting Congress handle the torture investigation is the path of least resistance, one that will allow him to pursue more important matters. But this maneuver doesn’t require him to assert the few bad apples excuse. The question is why he decided to make this specious argument. And he made it on the very same day that he said the following during commencement at Arizona State.
“In recent years, in many ways, we’ve become enamored with our own success, lulled into complacency by our own achievements,” he said, citing the economic crisis. “We started taking shortcuts. We started living on credit, instead of building up savings. We saw businesses focus more on rebranding and repackaging than innovating and developing new ideas that improve our lives.” New York Times, May 13, 2009, “Work Is Never Done, Obama Tells Class”
Read these words and think about Obama’s actions yesterday. Read these words and think about some of the “shortcuts” that he has been taking. (See Andrew Sullivan’s article, “The Fierce Urgency Of Whenever,” on Obama’s backsliding on the treatment of gays.) Read these words and think about the Obama brand. And ask, who is Barack Obama really speaking about when he speaks about repackaging? Rhetorical flourishes are not going to provide him with cover if there is too great a disjunction between his words, his other words, and his deeds.
Yes, Obama cannot be expected to remake the U.S. in a 100 days. The question is whether there is a misguided expediency at work, one in which the shortest path is assumed to be established lines in the sand.
We cannot let this slogan become merely a slogan. As per Obama’s request, we will remind him, hound him, when his rudder may need some work.