Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Security and torture: a lesson from the American Revolution

This is why I think it is essential to conduct a thorough investigation of the U.S. government’s unfortunate record of officially-sanctioned torture over the last eight years: Bushies argue that they may have done bad things, but at least, when they made torture national policy, they kept the country safe from attack. What has got ...

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This is why I think it is essential to conduct a thorough investigation of the U.S. government's unfortunate record of officially-sanctioned torture over the last eight years: Bushies argue that they may have done bad things, but at least, when they made torture national policy, they kept the country safe from attack.

What has got me stewing about this, oddly enough, is the British government's stalwart reaction to losing the American Revolution. In the aftermath of that wrenching disaster, British officials conducted a painful and thorough examination of how to better provide for the security of their nation. It was fortunate they did, because the consequent reforms helped them get in shape to withstand Napoleon two decades later. As Kevin Phillips puts it in his terrific book The Cousins' Wars, "Much of the change that helped to beat Napoleon in Europe was seeded by frustration over defeat in North America."

Bottom line? Just because you have an embarrassing problem, you shouldn't try to hide it, because dealing with it may prepare you for an even bigger challenge down the road. So let's get the torture and interrogation situation straightened out before the next big terrorist attack. My preference, as I've stated before, is for a truth and reconciliation commission that offers an amnesty period during which people would be invited to step forward. Anyone not 'fessing up during that time would face the possibility of prosecution. Again, I think this effort should target those who departed from American history and made torture national policy.

This is why I think it is essential to conduct a thorough investigation of the U.S. government’s unfortunate record of officially-sanctioned torture over the last eight years: Bushies argue that they may have done bad things, but at least, when they made torture national policy, they kept the country safe from attack.

What has got me stewing about this, oddly enough, is the British government’s stalwart reaction to losing the American Revolution. In the aftermath of that wrenching disaster, British officials conducted a painful and thorough examination of how to better provide for the security of their nation. It was fortunate they did, because the consequent reforms helped them get in shape to withstand Napoleon two decades later. As Kevin Phillips puts it in his terrific book The Cousins’ Wars, “Much of the change that helped to beat Napoleon in Europe was seeded by frustration over defeat in North America.”

Bottom line? Just because you have an embarrassing problem, you shouldn’t try to hide it, because dealing with it may prepare you for an even bigger challenge down the road. So let’s get the torture and interrogation situation straightened out before the next big terrorist attack. My preference, as I’ve stated before, is for a truth and reconciliation commission that offers an amnesty period during which people would be invited to step forward. Anyone not ‘fessing up during that time would face the possibility of prosecution. Again, I think this effort should target those who departed from American history and made torture national policy.

(And follow-up on yesterday: Yes, I do believe torture has two victims, the human suffering it and the human inflicting it. I believe there is a pretty good body of evidence collected on how torturers often are haunted and eroded by their long past acts.) 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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