New York Police officers are seen under a news ticker in Times Square in New York, April 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
The April 15 bombing of the finish line at the Boston Marathon has triggered—and will continue to trigger—a series of state responses. The “first responders” were seen bravely running towards the scene of the devastation even as thousands of runners and spectators were quite naturally running away, in search of security. The second response, ongoing as I write this, is the search for the perpetrator or perpetrators, to bring them, as President Obama said, to justice. But the third response may be the most enduring—the legislative and executive initiatives sparked by the tragedy in hopes of preventing similar acts in the future. We all want to prevent such acts, of course, but we must be careful about the lengths to which we are willing to go toward that end.
A vivid reminder of the dangers of the third type of response came, coincidentally, the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, when a nonpartisan, blue-ribbon task force sponsored by the Washington-based Constitution Project issued its final report on the United States’ treatment of detainees in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The task force conducted a two-year investigation—interviewing detainees, lawyers and former government officials—and has written a more than 500-page report. It unanimously concluded that “it is undisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” and that “the nation’s most senior officials…bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques.” The task force also found that the United States had “violated its international legal obligations in its practice of the enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention of terror suspects in secret prisons abroad.”
The task force further found that there was “no firm or persuasive evidence” that the use of harsh interrogation tactics “produced significant information of value,” that the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers gave “erroneous legal sanction” to the practice and that doctors, psychologists and other medical professionals violated their ethical obligations in participating in the design and administration of pain as an interrogation technique.
These conclusions are unlikely to come as a surprise to readers of The Nation. But what is most significant about the task force’s report is that it was not written by readers of, or writers for, The Nation. The task force, much like the 9/11 Commission, comprises well-respected senior former government officials, professors and doctors from both sides of the political aisle. It was chaired by Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who served in the Bush administration and who has most recently acted for the National Rifle Association in its opposition to gun control and James P. Jones, a Democratic former representative and ambassador to Mexico. Its members included a former ABA President, two retired Army generals, a former director of the FBI and a former Ambassador to the United Nations, along with several distinguished professors and doctors from all sides of the political spectrum. It included Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives.
These days, it is difficult to find common ground on almost anything among Democrats and Republicans, as President Obama has seen time and time again. Partisan wrangling is especially intense around issues of national security. Indeed, President Obama famously (and I believe, erroneously) opposed any official effort to examine the abuses of detainees after 9/11 out of concern that it would devolve into partisan bickering that would derail other items on his agenda. Yet on this task force, Republicans and Democrats agreed—unanimously—that the United States’s most senior officials are responsible for war crimes and abuses of fundamental human rights—torture, enforced disappearances and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.