Today is “Stick It To The Bush Torture Regime Day” at the White House. Like so many holidays, it’s a day of symbols. The man who thought wearing a flag lapel-pin was a symbolic substitute for real patriotism has decided that symbolic substitutes are the point, after all. As Jennifer rightly noted, this is all about PR.
In fact, if you want to get crazy and look past the document-signing photo-op and the round of Oval Office applause, there’s reason for human-rights activists to be profoundly discouraged: “The administration already has suspended trials for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.” But, hey, what’s a four-month delay of habeas corpus compared to the nation-defining issue of . . . prisoner relocation?
This was an all-day celebration, of which the White House Guantanamo show was only the main event. During his confirmation hearing, President Obama’s
CIA DirectorNational Intelligence Chief-nominee Dennis Blair joined in the festivities with the weighty pronouncement that there would be no U.S. torture of criminals on his watch. And once again, a peek past the symbolism finds weaselly continuity in place of change: ” . . . Blair refused to say whether he believes waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning — is torture.”
There is an argument to be made that the Obama administration’s commitment to symbolically ameliorating the globe’s anti-Americans will pay real-world dividends. Maybe closing Guantanamo Bay will get us a handful more allies the next time we fight. Maybe a winking pledge to soften prisoner interrogations will induce al Qaeda to behead fewer American captives.
But any serious reckoning has to weigh the likelihood of those advantages against the likelihood of the drawbacks. Just what does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad think of the fact that the new American President has used his first full day in office to condemn and partially reverse the antiterrorism methods that have kept the American homeland attack-free for seven-plus years? What might Ayman al-Zawahiri think about this? Barack Obama said that his administration would not “continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals.” And that’s true — his administration has actually introduced this fallacy. And by reducing “our ideals” to a couple of PR coups, he is sacrificing both them and our safety.