“I had not recognized the depths of torture in some cases. We lost our compass.” James Jones, co-chair, Task Force on Detainee Treatment. Almost a half century ago, when I was stationed in Europe, I asked a Dutch friend how she had learned her flawless English. She told me that, after the Allied liberation of her country, all Dutch schools taught English from kindergarten on. “We loved everything American,” she said. Our subsequent efforts at liberation haven’t gone as well. The images of hands desperately grabbing at helicopters lifting off from the embassy in Saigon in 1975 remain vivid, and they have been updated in Afghanistan by stories of interpreters who cannot get exit visas and fear for their lives and the lives of their families. Are we to think that Vietnamese, Iraqis and Afghans are less able to understand their own liberation than Europeans were? Or has something changed in how we wage war?
After World War II, the United States pushed for the prosecution of Nazi officials for war crimes, including torture, at Nuremburg. According to the bipartisan report on detainee treatment released yesterday, “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” which was approved by the president. Our actions, it concluded, were both unjustified and ineffective. Above all, they violated our values. “The United States has a historic and unique character,” said Asa Hutchinson, task force co-chair and undersecretary for Homeland Security in the Bush Administration, “and part of that character is that we do not torture.” Unfortunately, according to his own report, we do.