Of all the revelations concerning the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) brutality during the “war on terror,” none is more disturbing than the persistence with which some members of Congress — of all people — defend what was done in our name. I say “of all people” because unlike the average citizen — the shopkeeper, bus driver, school teacher, accountant — members of Congress take an oath to do what they were elected to do: defend the Constitution.
It’s true that fear can sometimes knock one’s judgment off the rails: we deported or jailed critics of the government during the country’s early days and placed American citizens of Japanese heritage in camps while we confiscated their property during World War II. But our Constitution, the same one members of Congress swear to uphold, specifically prohibits the government from using torture and from holding people prisoner indefinitely and without charges.
True, other countries sometimes engage in such behavior but we are not “other countries;” we hold ourselves out to be different, to be a nation of high principle and one in which governmental power is limited. There are some things our government is simply not allowed to do. Sometimes there is a cost to this high-mindedness, but the benefit is a degree of individual and collective freedom that was unknown to most of the pre-United States world and is still unknown in many places today.
I understand why the president and others in the Bush Administration, desperate to protect Americans and to avenge the attack on the United States, felt it necessary to use every possible weapon at their disposal. Feeling a responsibility to ensure the public’s safety is an enormous pressure and one is naturally hesitant to leave any “weapon” unused. I get that. But there are reasons, historical, ethical, moral reasons, why some behaviors were proscribed when this great nation was created.
We will have no Towers of London, no Inquisition-like torture chambers, no assumptions of guilt which is unnecessary to prove. Yes, the CIA, even the elected officials and their advisors who ordered or sanctioned or permitted these behaviors, had their reasons for doing what they did and they have reasons for defending themselves for the decisions they made. But there is no excuse — none — for members of Congress, many of whom were ignored, misled, or lied to, to accept, even applaud, what our government did.
Mickey Edwards is vice president of the Aspen Institute and serves as director of the Aspen Institute Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership. He was a Republican member of Congress from Oklahoma from 1977 to 1992.