The American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations have called on President Obama to honor military personnel and civilians who opposed the use of torture in the war on terror. We would support such a gesture by the president, though we consider it unlikely given how often he has said that he wants to “look forward, not backward” regarding abuses committed during the George W. Bush administration.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take the president to shed light on the identities of government employees who balked at or questioned the Bush policies. The ACLU itself has played a valuable role in publicizing the actions of people like Joseph Darby, an Army reservist and whistle-blower who turned over Abu Ghraib abuse photos to Army investigators, and former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora, who led an effort inside the Department of Defense to oppose Justice Department legal opinions condoning coercive interrogation methods.
Much has been written about how human and normal it is to follow orders; the less-mentioned corollary is that it is difficult to buck authority, to risk disapprobation and backlash to do the right thing. That’s what brave people like Darby and Mora did. Throughout the government, there were men and women who refused to participate in officially sanctioned torture, who reported abuses and coercion to their superiors or who rejected practices they believed to be immoral or illegal.
The ACLU is right that memories of past abuses shouldn’t be allowed to fade. From mistreatment of inmates at Guantanamo Bay to the repeated waterboarding of “high value” detainees to the rendition of suspected terrorists to secret overseas prisons, this country committed appalling violations of human rights — all in the name of combating terrorism. (It isn’t clear whether any of these techniques served their purpose, but that’s not the point. Torture cannot be validated by “success.”)
It would be helpful if Obama seized the opportunity to underline his condemnation of torture by honoring those who resisted it. But that isn’t necessary to preserve the memory of what went terribly wrong in the war on terror — and to resolve that it doesn’t happen again.