June 26th, is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, first declared by the United Nations in 1987. Unfortunately, it will pass basically unnoticed by most Americans, which isn't surprising given the fact that most Americans remain either blissfully unaware of the torture that has and is occurring around the world, or even, sadder still, approve of the torture our own country has engaged in.
Yes, I say approve, because we now know that our former president, George W. Bush, has acknowledged the torture committed during his tenure, torture which President Obama has refused to prosecute, saying that we need to look forward, not back, and now many Americans, who have never been particularly good at looking back, or even forward, have apparently bought that answer. They've "moved on," and now torture is yesterday's news.
In 1996, historian Daniel Goldhagen published a controversial, and hugely influential book called "Hitler's Willing Executions," in which he lays out the evidence that despite claims to the contrary, many "average Germans" did know what was actually going on in the concentration camps. They not only knew, but were, in fact, in full agreement with what was going on, and that their "we didn't know" assertions were based on a fabric of lies and deceptions. They knew perfectly well what was going on, and the book made a tremendous impact in Germany where people were either outraged, or thanked him for finally uncovering the truth.
The American people have no such defense. In June of 2010, former President Bush made an unapologetic speech about the torture he gave the go-ahead for at Guantanamo---our own concentration camp in Cuba---which completely violated both international law and the Geneva Conventions, as is fully documented by law professor Philippe Sands in his 2008 book, "Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values." Furthermore, in his June speech, Bush reiterated his position that he would torture again if he were president, and it meant that American lives would be saved.
Beyond the arguments as to whether or not any American lives were, in fact "saved" by said torture, there remains this simple fact: torture did go on, and Americans, unlike the Germans during World War II, do not have the luxury of saying "we didn't know." We do know, and, as of now, it appears that many of us don't care.
Although President Obama did acknowledge that waterboarding is torture, so far, not only have there been no attempts to hold Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others in their administration responsible by charging them with international war crimes, even suggesting that now strikes many Americans as either bizarre, baffling, or somehow a breach of social etiquette. The national silence is deafening, and the last time I checked , when someone is aware that a crime has been committed and they do not speak up, it's called being an accessory.
In the 1977, Frost/Nixon interview, one of the defenses the former president offered for his Watergate crimes was his assertion that, "When the president does it, it's not against the law." Unfortunately, in the years since Ford pardoned Nixon, it appears that "it" (whether that "it" is torture, illegal wars based on lies, or now extrajudicial drone assassinations of Americans abroad) still isn't against the law. Of course Ford's pardon was completely bogus since you can't pardon someone who hasn't been convicted of a crime, nevertheless, this rule of thumb is apparently still fully operational today. Only now it's been given a new twist in our "post-9/11" world: "When the president tortures it's not against the law."
I'd like to say that some recent convictions for torture, such as one in 2010 of a Chicago police lieutenant for his "harsh interrogations" of suspects in that city, which were deemed to be torture, give me hope, but the complete lack of action on a national level does not bode well. There is no legal reason why our federal officials should not be held to the same standards of international law that leaders of other countries are expected to uphold. As long as we fail to do so, those voices that charge us with hypocrisy, and "American exceptionalism," will continue to resonate, and our government's lectures to other countries about their human rights violations will continue to ring hallow.
The truth is, we are tainted by torture, and both of our major national parties are completely complicit. Until the American people acknowledge that torture did occur, and hold responsible those who committed these acts in our name, we have no business claiming the moral high ground by pretending it didn't happen, or by glossing it over with euphemisms like "enhanced interrogations."
Unlike those Germans who claimed they didn't know, we do know, and we can only redeem ourselves when we admit it, and begin obeying international laws we say we believe in. If we did that, then maybe the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, will not just be another date on the calendar, but a time to remember victims of torture throughout the world, and strengthen our efforts to see that this shameful chapter in human history is brought to an end.