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Those who don’t know history

February 11, 2009

History has an ugly tendency of repeating itself. By insisting on only “looking forward”, President Obama runs the risk of learning nothing from the mistakes of his predecessor. Thus, he might, alas, be destined to repeat them.

By issuing Executive Orders to close Guantanamo  and end  torture, US President Barack Obama has taken a huge step in the right direction. By ending the outrageous practices of kidnapping and torture – or “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Newspeak – Obama has started the important process of bringing the US back to the rule of law.

While I do of course applaud the efforts of President Obama and the new administration in putting an end to these atrocities committed in the name of the American people, I am rather concerned about what the future may hold.  As the saying goes, those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it, and President Obama still seems a little hesitant when it comes to doing his homework for History 101. According to Torin Nelson, President of the Society for Professional Human Intelligence, the United States has not yet conducted a full investigation into the use of torture by U.S. forces and security agencies. When asked about establishing a truth commission on torture at a White House press conference, President Obama replied that the best way to end torture was only by “looking forward.” Torin Nelson – and yours truly – beg to differ. President Obama may have ended torture for now, but to make sure that the US does not resort to the evils of “enhanced interrogation” again in the future, he needs to take a good and thorough look at the past.

Investigare necesse est

Torin Nelson has teamed up with Human Rights First and calls for a  non-partisan truth commission to examine the United States’ use of torture.  Amnesty International USA also calls for a full investigation of how the world’s most powerful democracy chose to renounce human rights and the rule of law.

The atrocities at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib shocked the entire world, and the thought of repeating these horrors is quite a nightmarish one. It is imperative that President Obama does everything in his power to ensure that this does not happen again. The best way to do this is to learn from the very policies and proceedings that brought us torture and  illegal detentions in the first place. Obama must, with no further delay, establish an independent truth commission to investigate the use of torture by American agents. Such a commission must be armed with subpoena power, and made up of members with unimpeachable integrity who are not afraid to ask uncomfortable and sometimes inconvenient questions. Why did the supposedly free and brave resort to arbitrary detention, disappearances and torture? How useful have so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques been to U.S. forces? What have been the costs, measured in lives lost and damage done to the reputation of the US, of using these techniques? Last, but by no means least, what policies and procedures were changed to allow for the use of torture?

Failing to investigate these grave matters will of course increase the chances that the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo will be repeated. Do your part now, sign Amnesty International’ petition for a full investigation of American torture. Otherwise, to paraphrase Torin Nelson, future generations will look back and wonder why you looked the mistakes of the past square in the eye and blinked.

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