What Obama Is Still Missing in the Debate on Torture

President Obama's condemnation of torture during a White House press conference last Friday was welcome news for longtime critics of the U.S.' policy of torturing detainees in the immediate post-9/11 years. "We tortured some folks," Obama admitted, adding that "we crossed a line" by doing "some things that were contrary to our values."

It wasn't his first use of the word "torture" to describe techniques such as waterboarding. But in light of years of nauseating references to "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," the glorification of torture in primetime dramas such as 24, and the media's notorious difficulty with using the "t-word," Obama's words signaled another step forward in the effort to remove torture permanently from the U.S.' counterterrorism arsenal.

But Obama's reflections on torture last Friday were not without problems. He could not resist offering some justification for why the government resorted to torture, noting the "enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this." He then took a small jab at critics, current or potential, warning them "not to feel too sanctimonious" in light of the enormous pressures facing those responsible for preventing another terrorist attack.

Obama's statement that the pressures of 9/11 led to the use of torture, not to mention his rebuke toward those who might be too sanctimonious (read: preachy), is problematic on three levels. First, it creates the impression that the deplorable treatment of those deemed our enemies is something new to the post-9/11 era. It is not. The U.S. has a long history of supporting regimes that practice torture. In some instances, the CIA has helped to train these regimes in "interrogation techniques." Classic examples include the Greek military junta after the 1967 coup and the regime of Jorge Videla in Argentina. Perhaps the most infamous example involves Iran during the rule of the Shah. The CIA apparently trained the Shah's secret police force, SAVAK, in Nazi-style torture methods. SAVAK, in turn, employed these techniques on political dissidents opposed to the Shah's autocratic rule.

The point is that torture after 9/11 was not simply an "oops" moment, a temporary lapse of moral judgment that took place under extreme duress. Post-9/11 torture was the continuation of a geopolitical strategy dating back to the Cold War. U.S. officials did not participate directly in the torturing that took place in countries such as Iran, but U.S. policy made that torture possible, all in an effort to forge stronger Cold War alliances and to further imperial ambitions.

The second problem with Obama's statement is that it fails to acknowledge the racial and religious dimensions of post-9/11 torture. It is no secret that the majority of those subjected to brutal interrogations were Arabs and Muslims. This targeting of Arabs and Muslims was reflected in other counterterrorism policies after 9/11, including special registration programs, surveillance programs, detentions, deportations, and extraordinary renditions. The victims of these discriminatory and unjust policies were mostly people who constituted a much-maligned racial and religious group. Anti-Muslim bigotry is a part of the story of torture that must also be told, but to date, President Obama has struggled to articulate a larger sense of how prejudice and racism fed the post-9/11 appetite for torture.

Finally, Obama's statement comes across as an effort to deter critics from calling too much attention to America's sins when, in fact, the real problem is just how little self-criticism is allowed in political discourse when it comes to the U.S.' human rights record post-9/11. Obama's use of the word "sanctimonious" is particularly troubling. It suggests that there are limits to how much we should condemn torture, that there is a line that we should not cross when criticizing those who participate in torture.

But Obama is mistaken. The problem isn't that some folks are too preachy when it comes to torture. The problem is that the "sanctimonious" voices of human rights organizations and religious leaders are often drowned out in intelligence and counterterrorism circles, not to mention the larger political discourse in the U.S. There is considerable political pressure to depict the U.S. as the world's moral standard-bearer, the "city upon a hill" that provides a beacon of hope to all who long for freedom and democracy. This discourse allows us little opportunity to dwell on our moral failings.

That same pressure applies when explaining why terrorists plot to attack the U.S. "They hate our freedoms," insisted President Bush after 9/11. In other words, they hate our goodness, not our moral deficiencies. But it is telling that in that same speech, Bush goes on to say: "We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them." Here Obama and Bush are on the same page -- we must live up to our principles and values in the face of terrorist threats. But what exactly are these values given the U.S.' own history of human rights violations and its endorsement of torture pre- and post-9/11?

Now is not the time to tone down our condemnation of practices that contradict our values. Now is the time to encourage "sanctimonious" voices. There is no such thing as being too preachy when it comes to condemning torture. There is only the danger of being too hesitant and equivocal in our language, too uncertain in our moral convictions about how to treat our fellow human beings.

President Obama's language on torture is getting stronger. That's an important step. But what is still missing is the political will to condemn unequivocally the U.S.' history of torture, to name the bigotry and racism that has driven this torture, and to resist the temptation to rebuke "sanctimonious" critics of torture. But this is exactly what must be done if the U.S. hopes to live up to the values it professes to have concerning the rights and dignity of all human beings.