Vigilance Alone is Not Enough

February 26, 2009

The big news today is the announcement from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) that his committee plans to hold a hearing in the near future to consider possible approaches to investigating the use of torture during the Bush administration.

Committee member Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) told that he was convinced that a torture commission would be soon be established:

“When push comes to shove, we are the legislative branch of government. We have oversight responsibilities. And we don’t need the executive branch’s approval to look into these things just as a constitutional matter… The ultimate goal in this is protect and enhance American democracy.”

Senator Whitehouse, who also sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, firmly rejected arguments put forward by former Vice-President Dick Cheney and other dead-enders from the Bush administration that so-called enhanced interrogation methods had proved to be a vital intelligence tool that had kept Americans safe over the past seven years:

“The exact opposite was true…. the career, tough, serious military interrogators said that this just was not effective. But it is important to prove the point, because they keep saying, ‘we saved lives. We interrupted plans. We did this, that and the other.’ Well, when you drill down, there is never a fact there. It turns into fog and evasion.”

The rhetoric coming from the White House is leaving little room for the Obama administration to oppose the creation of an investigative commission. When he addressed the joint session of Congress last night President Obama told lawmakers:

“To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend – because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists – because living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.”

The abolitionist Wendell Phillips famously remarked that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but vigilance alone is not enough. Justice is not a spectator sport. To lead, to set an example, one must also act. If the President genuinely wishes to restore the integrity of the United States in the eyes of the world, he must go beyond fine words. He must act to ensure those that committed such heinous crimes our name are held to account.