Got my activist on and decided to write another letter to President Obama. It's so funny; I'm turning into my dad, who was a great writer of letters to politicians, newspaper editors, and other public figures he didn't agree with. It seems to be a Kottner trait; my grandmother did it too.
Here's a draft of my latest missive. I'm going to let it sit a couple of days before I send it, so any comments, typo spotting, corrections, suggestions, welcome.
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
20 April, 2009
Dear President Obama,
I’m a teacher, poet and artist living in New York City. I have been a disinterested non-voter for most of my life, but President Bush’s policies and actions—and your candidacy—galvanized me and changed my world-view. I’m writing first to thank you for the increased transparency you’ve brought to our government since taking office, and for striving to keep so many of your campaign promises. I applaud you especially for making the commitment to closing the unlawful prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since voting for you in the last national election, I’ve become increasingly involved in political and human rights activism, and I thank you also for that inspiration.
Which is why I’m also writing you today to ask you to reconsider your stance on forming a Truth Commission and the prosecution of interrogators who practiced and condoned waterboarding and other forms of torture under the aegis of the CIA and the Justice Department’s Orwellian definitions. I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before, but I think it’s important that you know they’re also coming from some of the ordinary citizens who voted and campaigned for you, because we saw you as a new broom. I’m also writing to you because I need to be able to say I’ve done as much as I can to put an end to a practice which places the country I am a voting citizen of in the same category as benighted, tyrannical regimes.
I agree with you that this is a divisive issue, and I understand and sympathize with your desire not to create more divisions in this country. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between merely bowing to the demands of a group of people who have been newly restored to power and doing the right thing. If we deny our wrongdoing, that allows these wounds to fester. Witness the ill feelings regarding the denial of a Turkish massacre of Armenians just after World War I, and the Japanese denial of the enslavement of Korean women during World War II, for example. That denial thwarts the efficacy of diplomacy on many levels, as well as presenting a barrier to the social and political growth of the deniers. The Allies were able to bring the perpetrators of Nazi genocide and torture and Japanese atrocities to justice because Germany and Japan were conquered and occupied nations. Because we have no such pressure on us, it is even more imperative that we take steps to right our own wrongs and do so publically. Politically mature nations, like mature individuals, are able to admit their wrongs, take the consequences, and move on. South Africa has set a clear example in this area with its apartheid truth commission. It’s not a simple solution or an easy one, but it’s a necessary one, for a number of reasons.
Torture is one of the most heinous violations of human rights, whether it involves waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats of rape or bodily harm, or fear for one’s life. Laws against intentionally harming a fellow human being are part and parcel of every civilized legal code on the planet. The difference between assault and torture is merely one of nomenclature and alleged purpose. Any argument of a real distinction between the two acts is sophistry, especially in light of the fact that torture produces so little—if any—useful information. As cartoonist Gary Trudeau pointed out in one of his Bush-era strips, it “used to be a given” that the U.S. did not torture its prisoners. We’ve lost the benefit of that moral high ground now. Sweeping the wrongdoing under the rug will not help us regain it.
A country which allows its agents to practice torture has no credibility in the world at large when it comes to speaking of human rights. How can we pressure countries like China to treat their prisoners humanely when torture is a part of our own repertoire? How can we condemn countries like Syria for their treatment of prisoners if we’re using them to do our dirty work? Hypocrisy like this taints everything we do on the world stage. If the U.S. is to be a true leader, we must face our errors, punish those responsible for them, and clean house. If we can’t clean our own house, Mr. President, we can’t ask others to do the same.
As signatories to the Geneva Conventions, this nation is bound by law to prosecute those officials who violate it. Article 131 says, “No High Contracting Party shall be allowed to absolve itself or any other High Contracting Party of any liability incurred by itself or by another High Contracting Party in respect of breaches referred to in the preceding Article.” We have clearly breached the rights of prisoners not to be tortured; prosecution of those responsible must follow if the rule of law is to be respected. In this country, without the rule of law, our experiment in democracy means nothing.
Finally, I know I don’t need to speak of the danger our policy of torturing prisoners places our troops in, but I will. My father, who died in 2005, was a WWII Army Air Corps, and later Air Force, veteran who was appalled by the existence of Guantanamo and the treatment the prisoners were subjected to. More than once, he told me this was not what he fought that war for. We need to repudiate that policy as strongly as possible to help ensure the humane treatment of our captured troops, as well as the humane treatment of everyone who comes to our shores. That sense of fairness was what my dad fought for.
For decades, the fact that American law, political philosophy, and foreign policy worked fairly well and were grounded in a strong sense of right and wrong allowed me to go along my complacent, non-involved way, confident that I lived in one of the best countries in the world. The Bush era’s egregious violations of the Constitution and American civil rights changed all that, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad in some senses. Now that our economy is struggling from unregulated greed, 48 million of us suffer from economic apartheid in health care, and our freedoms have been underhandedly undermined by the very people who are supposed to protect them, I can’t let myself stand by without saying something. I won’t ever be that complacent again, but I would like to regain that sense of confidence in the country I live in.
This is a long letter, and I’m not sure it will even reach you, Mr. President, through no fault of your own. But someone in your administration will read it and, I hope, pass on my sentiments, if not my letter, to you. I also know I’m not telling you anything new. You know these arguments, and you seem to me to be a reasonable, careful, and also moral person. I hope you will consider my words not as criticism, but as a call to action, the same call you gave that resounded in me. Thank you once again for the opportunity to express my views, and for doing the many good things you’ve already done.