We tortured some folks ...

Barack Obama’s now rather famous phrase from the end of last week is quite something.

As others have observed, it’s not the first time he’s referred to the mistreatment of detainees during the USA’s “war on terror” as torture (though it’s still rare to hear it). But it’s definitely new that he’s used this eye-catching “folks” phrase, a far more human word than alternatives like “detainees” or “terrorism suspects”.

On one level - and particularly on this side of the Atlantic - “folks” still sounds too er ... folksy for this very grave subject matter. To my ears it positively jars, sounding like a sort of glib, down-home Bushism, almost as if it were said with one of George W’s characteristic twinkle-eyed facial expressions. (This could just be me though. I’ve always disliked the word, hearing a hollow talk-show-host ring of insincerity in it).

But, on another level, and particularly for domestic US audiences, “folks” is surely the quintessential “us” - regular folk, neighbours, co-workers, our people. One commentator observed that folks brings a Fargo-like quality to the topic (ya know, kinda homely, kinda friendly). Whether the president intended this or whether the phrase was just used off the cuff is - to me at least - unclear, but the end result is that torture victims have been partially re-humanised through the vocabulary. Turned back into people. No longer just “bad guys”.

Which is a start. Lest we forget, torture is a worldwide scourge, affecting three-quarters of the world. Acknowledging that it’s as wrong when used against “terrorism suspects” as it is against political opponents or even minor criminal suspects is … well, progress.

What’s far less encouraging is the fact that Obama is still talking about “making sure that lessons are learned and mistakes are resolved” (mistakes!?), and not about things like “making people properly accountable for their actions” or “bringing people to justice”. Not a whisper about that. Indeed Obama even warns of the supposed dangers of being “sanctimonious in retrospect” about what the interrogator-torturers did. These too were “folks”, he says, ones with a “tough job” (though maybe not as tough as those who were actually being waterboarded or being forced to stay awake for 11 consecutive days).

Obama’s remarks are clearly preparing the ground for the long-awaited publication of at least part of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s mammoth (6,300-page) report into the activities of the CIA during its notorious rendition and secret detention programme. But whether anyone is actually going to be held responsible for authorising or carrying out crimes like kidnapping or torture is looking ... far from certain. Obama’s record on this is pretty awful. Shortly before his inauguration in 2009 he reassured any nervous Langley operatives that he didn’t “want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders.” Priorities, eh?

No, the worry here is that the White House is going to treat the CIA report as just another exercise in news management, just more PR firefighting. Rather embarrassingly, an internal “Talking Points” briefing prepared for White House officials by their US State Department colleagues recently appeared in public after accidentally getting sent to a journalist. This gave advice on how to deal with journalists’ questions over the Senate report. I note that one question in this crib-sheet Q/A was “Will the Justice Department revisit its decision not to prosecute anyone?” I wonder what the “A” to that is ...

We shall see. But what are the odds that the CIA will end up being ritualistically praised (“keeping America safe” etc) and that no-one will end up being punished? And if this fiercely contested (the CIA has already been caught spying on the Senate committee’s computers) process doesn’t produce anything approaching truth and justice isn’t there a danger that whole chunks of the past will be more or less erased, just like those incriminating interrogation videotapes the CIA wiped back in the day. Remember what Jose Rodriguez Jr (forrmer deputy director of operations at the CIA, 2004-7,) said about that? If the world saw the tapes it would be “devastating to the CIA”, he said, and “the heat from destroying is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes ever got into public domain”.

Rodriguez et al may be sleeping slightly uneasily at the moment but it’s still not looking especially likely that they’ll have to fully account for their actions.

We tortured some folks. But did we also let some folks get away with it? 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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