Good Men Doing Nothing


     There has been a lot of well deserved criticism aimed at Penn State and its failure to act when evil appeared in its midst. President Obama called it “heartbreaking”. Then he paraphrased Edmund Burke’s imortal quote “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Well respectfully, that’s you, Mr. President. You are the good man who stood by and did nothing about the torturers in our midst. How is the White House any different from Penn State?

     I voted for President Obama, and probably will again if the Occupy Movement doesn’t spawn a populist or anti-war third-party candidate. But in a jaw dropping development, the Republicans who would be president, stood proudly before the nation and recommended reviving torture. Certainly the Bush/Cheney White House gets the blame for convincing the nation torture was an“acceptable” practice. But President Obama didn’t end it forever as advertised. He made it an option. He let the precedent stand unchallenged. He is the poster child for the good man who did nothing.

     When he was elected to the Presidency, President Obama announced he didn’t want to get bogged down in the past. He wanted to move forward, get things done, work with Republicans, fix the economy, enact his agenda, and change Washington. (I won’t even stoop to the snide remarks about how that worked out.) But just like those at Penn State, President Obama decided turn his head away from evil – because, just like those at Penn State, he had what he thought was a good excuse; the greater good.

      Torture. Let’s all pause for a moment and think about what that innocuous word really means. Picture somebody torturing you. Better yet, picture someone torturing your dad. Picture it raw and bloody. Listen to his screams for hours on end, the pleas for death rather than continued pain. Feel his despair at the indignity of being naked. Imagine his mind breaking under the endless cold or the days without sleep. Your Dad. Crying. Blubbering. Begging. Tortured.

       The use of torture, THAT kind of torture, the most depraved acts one man has ever inflicted on another, is now a campaign issue. If you are pro-causing unbearable pain to your fellow human beings, vote Republican. This is not partisan rhetoric. I heard it with my own ears. But a revival of torture under a future administration is only possible because no one who sank to those depths the first time was made to face the consequences of his actions. If anyone had stood before a court; anyone who conceived of it, anyone who ordered it, anyone who carried it out, if anyone had been punished, there would not have been a single Republican on that debate stage happily promising to engage in something that could send his own red white and blue ass to jail.

        I suspect on some level President Obama feared if he brought President Bush and Vice President Cheney et al into court to face their crimes, there would be personal payback from the Republicans who would try to impeach him, or worse. We have seen the depths to which that party can sink, so I agree such a fear would be valid. To demand his predecessors face justice would have been a true Kennedy style profile in courage on the part of the president. But at least he ended the practice right? Wrong. While he may have ended the practice for his own time in office, (although some say rendition to countries using torture still goes on) President Obama actively colluded after the fact to enable torture.

     Yes, I said “actively” as in, President Obama took purposeful actions to protect torturers. Bringing charges against Bush/Cheney was not the only way President Obama could have made sure no future president could rename torture something catchy like “enhanced interrogation” and allow evil to ride again. There were other avenues available to have the courts rule on torture, and President Obama didn’t just decline to use any of them, he ordered the Justice Department to actively argue in court to shut them down.

 In Mohamed v. Jeppesen five men attempted to sue for being renditioned and tortured. The Obama Justice Department argued successfully to deny the lawsuit because it might reveal sources and methods of the CIA. Upon hearing the court’s ruling, Ben Wizner attorney for the plaintiffs said: “To date, not a single victim of the Bush administration’s torture program has had his day in court. If today’s decision is allowed to stand, the United States will have closed its courtroom doors to torture victims while providing complete immunity to their torturers.” 

In Arar V Ashcroft a Canadian citizen sued when he was renditioned to Syria by the US and tortured until Syria decided he had no connection with Al Qaeda and returned him to Canada. The Canadian government apologized and awarded him 10 million dollars. The Obama administration successfully argued his case should not be allowed because state secrets might be revealed.

When Attorney General Holder carried out a two-year Justice Department review of whether CIA officials broke any laws with their post 9/11 interrogations, he ordered the investigators to use the standard of “authorized techniques” and not “legal techniques” which would have identified and hopefully addressed acts of torture. 

      I understand there was concern among some about holding accountable those who actually took part in torture at Washington’s direction. To me, this is like being concerned about protecting the hit man who did the killer’s bidding. There were many military men who refused to assist the CIA in their torture of prisoners. If these men of principle could risk their careers to make that courageous decision, those who decided to be part of the Bush violence should have had to defend their decision in a court of law.

     I could continue for quite some time with a list of cases that the Obama Justice Department sought to quash , but I don’t want my larger observation to be lost in the minutia of the legal arguments. I want your eyes on the big picture. Are we a moral country? Do we stand by our principles? Should there be consequences for our actions?

    Penn State, by doing nothing allowed evil to triumph. President Obama, by doing nothing allowed evil to triumph. And by the way, by continuing to do nothing, so do we.

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2 Responses to Good Men Doing Nothing

  1. Ajay Kaul says:

    Very well written piece. The issue really is between leadership and political leadership. Where logic ends, politics begins. A leader can stand for what he/she thinks is right and rally support around that idea or he/she can look at a survival strategy that will get most yay’s from the public. Unfortunately, today’s generation of leaders choose the latter. You bring up a good point about military men who refused to toe the CIA line on torture – but unfortunately, we have very few upright men. One hope that I cling to though, is that in the era of social media, we have more opportunties to voice our dissent on acts that are more influenced by politics instead of logic.

  2. Thank you for saying this. I live in Norway and I still wish our Nobel Peace Prize Committee hadn’t awarded the Peace Prize to Obama. There are too many reasons why he doesn’t deserve it, and allowing torture to continue is one of them.

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