In my facts article, I state, "a different kind of praise for the 9/11 Report has come in the form of requests for "9/11-Type Commissions" for other horrible events in America's history such as Katrina and the recent "financial crisis." For Nicholas to recommend a Commission based on the 9/11 Commission to get "a better understanding of our shortcomings" was no surprise. To hear him recommend Philip Zelikow to write the "conclusions" of that Commission nearly made me lose my breakfast. - Jon
Putting Torture Behind Us
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: January 28, 2009
President Obama is resisting calls for an investigation into torture and other abuses during the Bush years, so the chance to learn from our mistakes is slipping away.
Mr. Obama understandably wants to focus on economic recovery rather than a dissection of the past. Why fritter political capital on an inquest that would antagonize Republicans and imperil our economy and his agenda?
But as George Santayana, the eminent Harvard philosopher wrote: “Those who forget history are destined to repeat it.” Rather than lose forever the chance to grow from our missteps, here’s a two-step proposal for confronting the past without distracting from the work on the economic crisis.
The first step is to appoint a high-level commission — perhaps a McCain-Scowcroft Commission? — to investigate torture, secret detention and wiretapping during the Bush years, as well as to look ahead and offer recommendations for balancing national security and individual rights in the future.
This wouldn’t be a bipartisan commission, with Democrats and Republicans offsetting each other in seething distrust. Rather, it would be nonpartisan, dominated by military and security experts.
It could be co-chaired by Brent Scowcroft and John McCain, with its conclusions written by Philip Zelikow, a former aide to Condoleezza Rice who wrote the best-selling report of the 9/11 commission.
If the three most prominent members were all Republicans, no one on the right could denounce it as a witch hunt — and its criticisms would have far more credibility. The commission could be rounded out by former generals, top intelligence officials and outside experts without a strong partisan cast: people like Richard Haass, Anthony Zinni, Joseph Nye, James Dobbins and William Cohen.
Democrats might begrudge the heavy Republican presence on such a commission, but surely any panel is better than where we’re headed: which is no investigation at all. And the truth is that many generals are privately aghast at torture because it undermines their own “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency efforts, and because it adds to the risk that our own troops will face the same in enemy hands. My bet, based on my conversations with military and intelligence experts, is that such a commission would issue a stinging repudiation of torture that no one could lightly dismiss.
As a nation, we’ve repeatedly trampled on individual rights during moments of national fear — the Palmer raids after World War I, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the McCarthy hearings at the dawn of the cold war. We may well do so again after the next major terror attack, particularly if it turns out to have been planned by people who were released from Guantánamo.
We’ll be better off if we come to some consensus on these issues. The Kerner commission on race and the 9/11 commission are both examples of how we as a nation used such panels to gain a better understanding of our shortcomings. Such a commission would also help heal the divisions with the rest of the world and help renew America’s reputation.
The second step has to do in particular with transforming Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Mr. Obama’s pledge to close the prison there within a year is a big help, but even so the word “Guantánamo” will live as a recruiting tool for Muslim terror groups.
So let’s do more than just close the prison. The best move would be to hand Guantánamo back to the Cubans.
Why spend tens of millions each year for a naval base that has very little military utility? We can project power in the region from Florida, and the main effect of the base has been to bolster Cuba’s Communist regime by creating a nationalist backlash and a scapegoat for the Castros’ repression and incompetence.
Granted, returning the base to Cuba may not be politically realistic. So here’s a fallback alternative: turn the base into a research center for tropical diseases.
This was proposed in a medical journal, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, a year ago, and it makes more sense now than ever.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are still more than half-a-million cases annually of dengue fever (which causes excruciating pain and sometimes death), nearly 50,000 new cases of leprosy and more than 700,000 cases of elephantiasis (which causes grotesque deformities). In addition, 50 million Latin Americans have hookworms inside them, often causing anemia and making it more difficult for children to concentrate in school.
Peter Hotez, the president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute at George Washington University and the editor of PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, says that an international center on Guantánamo could become a symbol of United States cooperation in the region.
Imagine if people around the world came to think of Guantánamo as a place where America led a battle against hookworms and leprosy. That would help us fight terrorism far more effectively than the prison at Guantánamo ever did.