New York Review of Books, 29 September 2011
Because so much was done under the veil of secrecy, much remains unknown about the extent of the illegality. Mark Danner’s publication in these pages of the Red Cross’s report on the abusive interrogations of “high-value” detainees provides a glimpse at the horrors US agents inflicted.4 But we do not even know how many people US officials have abducted, rendered, disappeared, tortured, or killed. We do not know the extent of the injuries suffered, and still being suffered, by those we abused. We still know relatively little about the mistreatment of most of the Guantánamo detainees. We have not apologized to even a single victim—not even to those, like Canadian citizen Maher Arar and German citizen Khaled al-Masri, who were targeted for renditions and torture based on misinformation, and have been cleared of any wrongdoing themselves.
Meanwhile, our former president in his memoir has proudly proclaimed that he personally authorized waterboarding—a practice we prosecuted as torture in the past when it was used against our troops. The former vice-president recently replied affirmatively when asked whether waterboarding should “still be a tool” of interrogation. Failing to condemn such blatant wrongdoing in some official way leaves an open wound both for the victims and for the integrity of our system, and implies that the tactics were neither lawless nor immoral. The rule of law may be tenacious when it is supported, but violations of it that go unaccounted corrode its very foundation.
All of which only underscores the continuing need for an engaged civil society committed to the ideals of liberty and law. The past decade suggests that the rule of law may be stronger than cynics thought. It teaches that adherence to values of liberty, equality, and dignity is more likely to further than to obstruct our security interests. But it also illustrates our collective reluctance to confront our past, a reluctance that threatens to erode our most important values.