In one of the most perverse moments yet in the torture debate, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took time to explain the need for torture to a fourth grader who was a bit curious why his country tortured people. The question of Misha was considerably more reassuring than Rice’s answers.
Rice was given a lecture at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue when she ran into Misha Lerner who asked her to explain why the Bush administration tortured people. Rice responded:
“Let me just say that President Bush was very clear that he wanted to do everything he could to protect the country. After September 11, we wanted to protect the country. But he was also very clear that we would do nothing, nothing, that was against the law or against our obligations internationally. So the president was only willing to authorize policies that were legal in order to protect the country. . . .I hope you understand that it was a very difficult time. We were all so terrified of another attack on the country. September 11 was the worst day of my life in government, watching 3,000 Americans die. . . . Even under those most difficult circumstances, the president was not prepared to do something illegal, and I hope people understand that we were trying to protect the country.”
This is close to the Nixonian response that Rice gave Stanford students last week..
I find it interesting that Rice is falling back on the exceptional circumstances of the time — a defense expressly rejected under the Convention Against Torture. Article 2 states: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
There is also the claim for a type of constitutional Mulligan for officials who are terrified after 911. It is pretty disconcerting to hear about officials living in terror of a group of terrorists. I live in Washington and the plane hit the Pentagon literally in my rear view mirror as I passed the Pentagon. A friend died on that flight. Yet, I was not “terrified” to Al Qaeda. I was angry and vengeful, but I would never have approved torture. We expect adults (let alone high-ranking officials) to act soberly and lawfully and humanely. Rice and the rest make it sound like they participated in a form of organized panic — where their little transgressions can be excused.
According to Misha’s mother, the boy originally wanted to ask “If you would work for Obama’s administration, would you push for torture?” His parents made him change the question. With all due respect to the parents (who clearly have raised a bright child), I liked Misha’s original question a bit more.
The failure of the Obama administration to select a special prosecutor is why officials like Rice can hold these impromptu torture for tots classes. Rice should be meeting with defense counsel, not holding forth on why torture is more excusable when your leaders are “terrified.” By the way, Al Qaeda must be loving the moment: what greater success is there for a terrorist than to know that you terrified the President of the United States and his National Security Adviser.