“I do believe waterboarding was torture, and it was a mistake,” said President Barack Obama during the hour-long press conference celebrating his first 100 days in office.
The president, while castigating the conduct of his predecessor, compared his own position on interrogation to Winston Churchill’s refusal to torture German prisoners during the Blitz.
Clearly Obama is eager to clear the American conscience of what he has described as a “dark period” in the country’s history. So be it.
Given the president’s historical perspective and eagerness to apologize for our centuries of sins, for the sake of consistency, should he not begin the atonement in full? Why not make amends for the decisions his predecessors made to defend the country during times of war and crisis that do not pass our elevated moral standards?
Obama should start by condemning his hero, Abraham Lincoln. In his crusade to preserve the Union at all costs, the 16th president waged relentless and often ruthless war. This included the declaration of martial law, the authorization of militarily tribunals and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.
Lincoln and his subordinates also shut down the operation of pro-confederacy newspapers such as the Chicago Times, the Pennsylvania based Jeffersonian (whose printing presses and offices were destroyed and ransacked by Union soldiers), imprisoned the editors of the New York World and Journal of Commerce and arrested and deported war critics such as Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham.
Half a century later, while prosecuting World War I, Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. These made any form of speech or action that aided or abetted America’s enemies a federal offense. The Supreme Court found both pieces of legislation necessary for national safety in a time of war. Coincidentally, among those arrested and imprisoned for violating these acts was socialist leader Eugene Debs, who Wilson described as a “traitor.” Obama, who would most likely disagree with that assessment, should denounce Wilson.
The president will also want to castigate Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Obama, who has apparently been reading up on Roosevelt while studying the New Deal, must be familiar with FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the interment of Japanese, German and Italian-Americans. Roosevelt also approved of the establishment of martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Hawaii in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and created military tribunals to try prisoners of war.
Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, has already indirectly earned the current president’s disparagement and second guessing for ending World War II by ordering the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, Obama might want to heap some additional scorn on Truman for creating the Federal Employees Loyalty Program that demanded the Department of Justice create a list of possible subversives during the Cold War and authorized the federal government to terminate employees based on their politics and associations.
Given this historical precedent, it is clear that George W. Bush was hardly the first chief executive to take what Obama calls “shortcuts” to protect the American people. Of course, if one deems Bush’s interrogation techniques torture, his predecessor’s policies are not necessarily analogous.
Still, there is an overarching motivation to all of these actions which Obama would most likely believe “undermine who we are.” During times of war and national danger, presidents are faced with difficult decisions that often involve prioritizing saving lives against saving face. Thankfully, most have chosen the former. It is unclear our current chief executive, who will no doubt be faced with this choice at some point, intends to extend this streak.
Yet, the president himself inadvertently underlined the paradox of his position while preening over his ethical superiority to Bush. When asked what lengths he would go to secure the safety of the American people, Obama responded, “That’s the responsibility I wake up with and it’s the responsibility I go to sleep with. And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe.”
Let us pray so.