Accountability for Torture is Less Important than Building Political Consensus

I’m strongly inclined, in many respects, to agree with Glenn Greenwald and Michael O’Hare that the Obama administration’s unwillingness to really hold anyone accountable for illegal torture during the Bush years is setting a very bad precedent. I won’t restate the argument, because I think it’s pretty clear how it works, but read Greenwald & O’Hare if you want to see it well-stated.

I think the counter-evidence comes from post-communist Eastern and Central Europe. But especially from “central” Europe — the former Soviet satellite states that are now pretty successful liberal democracies. Places like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, etc. If you look at these countries you’ll see that in many instances there’s been shockingly little accountability for Communist-era crimes. The general pattern is that opposition governments were elected in 1989 or 90, and then in the mid-nineties members of the old regime came back into power with their parties rebranded as social democratic parties. In Romania the pattern was different in that the former regime people came to power right away then lost power in the mid-nineties and then came back in in 2000.

But in no case did you have a really thorough investigation and punishment for past misdeeds. And that hasn’t led to a comeback of totalitarianism.

What you did have, though, was the establishment of a clear national political consensus about certain things. People largely agreed that Russian domination was bad, that Communism was bad, that joining the West was good, that elections were good and that whatever might have happened in the past there was no going back. This was different from the situation in Russia, where there was always the sense that the end of Communism was tied up with the idea of Russia “losing” a geopolitical struggle. And it’s also different from what’s emerging in the United States where there’s a continuing sense of partisanship — Democrats say torture is wrong, Republicans say torture is good, so the media talks about “contorversial” “interrogation tactics” and everyone knows that in the event of a new terrorist attack conservative politicians will run, aggressively, on an assertive pro-torture platform.


That’s a very grave problem. But that is the real problem that needs a solution. We need to find ways to politically delegitimize torture, to help build bridges to people who may disagree with us about tax rates or abortion or even the wisdom of bombing North Korea about the point that torture is wrong, shouldn’t have been done in the past, and shouldn’t be done in the future. And, importantly, about the point that torture actually shouldn’t be done — that you shouldn’t be looking for loopholes in anti-torture rules and seeing legal prohibitions on torture as a big hassle.