Finally! Americans have an opportunity to face down a monster – the ignominy of using barbaric torture tactics in the name of national security – let loose upon us by the Bush administration.
Since April 2004, when the awful images of Abu Ghraib came to light, igniting our enormous outcry, we have learned what really goes on at Guantánamo and in the CIA's worldwide network of secret prisons, where "alternative interrogation techniques" such as sexual humiliation and water-boarding are applied.
Though voters on Nov. 7 rejected President Bush's methods, he has not forsaken them: We must assume the United States government is still – no other word for it – torturing countless alleged terror suspects, most of whom haven't been charged.
Oh the shame. America's moral voice once edified the world. But today there is not much it can say with any integrity. The fall is killing America's soul. And the shame doesn't end with the Bush administration; it stains all Americans – "We the People" – the demos of this democracy. "Realists" say that torture happens in all wars, that Americans have tortured in the past. Yes, but not as American policy.
The nation must redeem its good name. Yet, shamefully, there's been little leadership in this mission. In the 2004 presidential race, neither Mr. Bush nor Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts confronted the torture issue squarely after Abu Ghraib. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona says the right things – "It's not about them. It's about us and what kind of country we are" – yet voted for the Military Commissions Act legalizing abusive treatment.
Unchampioned, then, the torture issue has rumbled around the American landscape like one of artist Francisco de Goya's monsters, combated with no more potent weapons than letters to the editor, columns, and citizens groups. Torture has even reduced to irony on Jon Stewart's popular fake-news show. No wonder citizen protest has gone to ground!
But now, the confluence of a new Democratic majority and the intensifying 2008 presidential campaign offers a golden opportunity to vanquish this monster.
Congressional Democrats promise hearings on torture. That's a good start. But they must also work aggressively to restore habeas corpus, undo the Military Commissions Act, and return the rule of law.
What could push the debate about torture into the public square is the 2008 presidential campaign. Imagine the transformation that would occur if White House hopefuls went on record stating their strong objection to American torture:
• It would reorient our core constitutional values. An emphatic "No!" to torture, especially after so much avoidance, would convert into an emphatic "Yes!" to due process, justice, adherence to laws not men – the list is long and soul-saving.
• It would recast the national security debate. Restating who Americans are as a people and our dedication to constitutional values would reestablish a values-driven (versus fear-driven) national security apparatus. It would clarify the higher ground we are fighting for and the means we will use and, importantly, not use to defend it. In the public square, proponents of "torture lite" would find the burden of proof forced back on them: "Into the microphone, please, tell us, the American people, why we must torture?"
As to the "nuclear scenario," the rationale justifying the torture of a suspected terrorist who might have knowledge of an impending nuclear strike: Let the president take full responsibility for approving its use – and exempt the American people. Our best security lies in a moral and political regeneration that inspires the world's admiration, not its rage.
• Popular culture might be redeemed. With the public debating the morality of torture, the notion of a moral line might be reintroduced into pop culture, where all manner of over-the-line sexualized and violent behaviors now dominate.
• Campaigning against torture would force the religious right, the GOP base, to deal with its contradiction: How can it square Christian charity with policies such as torture that result in suffering and death? This hypocrisy is a burden that the truly conscientious, and the nation, can bear no longer.
Undeniably, moral regeneration of this scale will take statesmanship. Americans are schizoid on things moral: We speak of the value of values, yet mock the "righteous" voice ... until, that is, we hear it. Who will step up? Most likely a Democrat, but then, how better for a Republican to realign the party? And if no candidate steps up, "We the People" must, starting now, before torture is bureaucratized.
If we don't, history will condemn us. We cannot claim ignorance; we know torture is happening. Will we duck the issue, absorbed by "American Idol"? To duck would consign us to a fatalism antithetical to the American ideal of initiative.
But by acting on our responsibilities as well as our rights, we would move toward maturity; we would prove a democracy can self-correct; we'd free ourselves from irony's snarkiness and talk earnestly; we would deliver a new post-9/11 day.
Most crucial, our good name would be restored. In "The Crucible," the great American play by Arthur Miller, John Proctor, unjustly sentenced to death but offered exoneration if he confesses, cries out to the court: "How may I live without my name?"
Candidates, hear us: Redeem our good name.
• Playwright Carla Seaquist is working on a new play, "Prodigal."