Sorry, Mr. President: 2+2=4

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2Plus2By Paul Street

[A]mong the privileges of power are the rights to violate elementary sense, distort the facts of history, and engage in rank hypocrisy without the slightest hint of shame.  Call it a free pass to tell the world that 2 + 2 = 5.

Take the comments of United States President Barack Obama on why there will be no further federal inquiries or federal prosecutions in the wake of the release of the 500-page summary of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,700 page report on the global torture program conducted by the CIA during the presidency of George W. Bush.  In his first official remarks after the release, Obama explained that “no nation is perfect.”  Still, Obama claimed, “one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes, and do better.”

Thanks to this glorious “American Exceptionalism,” the president continued, the only thing needed for the nation to move forward was the release of the summary. “Rather than [being] another reason to refight old arguments,” Obama added, “today’s report” (summary, actually) – a document whose release the White House resisted – “can help us leave these techniques where they belong – in the past.”

Maybe Obama should have used Orwell’s phrase:  “down the memory hole.”

It was hard not to almost admire the president’s Orwellian chutzpah.

Imperfect Techniques

To be clear, Obama’s phrase “these techniques” refers to a systematic campaign of unimaginable horror conducted by the US and some of its allies around the world and financed by a giant US budget for nearly a decade.  The sometimes fatal “techniques” ranged from sleep deprivation, mock executions, multiple water-boardings (near-drownings), punching, kicking, forced nakedness, sexual humiliation, rape, blinding, electrocution, forcing prisoners to stand for days on broken feet, denial of food and water, expose to extreme heat and cold, and the almost unfathomably perverse practice of “rectal feeding” (as in putting hummus in detainee’s rectums).  The savagery of it all is nearly beyond belief. The scale of the horror was gigantic.

Does Obama seriously think that one asks a nation to be “perfect” by expecting it not to run a massive planetary network of ghastly torture (“enhanced interrogation”) that used these appalling “techniques”? And what other nation on Earth has engaged in such unmitigated and perverse cruelty on a global scale, not just in this century but also during the Cold War, when the CIA and US military intelligence developed, deployed, and disseminated (to its many Third World Fascist proxies) many of the torture techniques used by the US and its “partners” in its post-9/11 US Global War on/of Terror?

Sorry, Mr. President, but 2 + 2 = 4, not 5.

Imperial Amnesia

What basis is there for Obama’s claim of “America’s” (the United States’) supposedly “exceptional” readiness “to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes, and do better?” None. The plutocratic United States’ reigning corporate-managed political, intellectual, and media culture is terrifyingly amnesiac when it comes to dreadful historical facts and realities that don’t the official story of the nation as a glorious beacon and agent of freedom and democracy. That cultures tolerates no serious reckoning with the monumental US crimes – past and present – of slavery, Native American genocide, Empire, class injustice, institutional racism, mass imprisonment, capitalist oppression, and eco-cide. Honest discussion of such critical topics is relegated to the “wild-eyed radical” margins, safely ignored by “responsible” persons of power and influence in the US.

Thus it is (to mention one among countless possible examples) that millions of US citizens have been induced to comprehend the criminal tragedy of “the Vietnam War” (a curious phrase for a one-sided assault on the poor peasant nation of Vietnam by the greatest military power ion history) in terms of what it did to us “Americans,” not the Indochinese – this despite the fact that the US lost only 57,000 soldiers while more than 4 million Southeast Asians lost their lives to the US assault.

Thus it was that a supposedly antiwar presidential candidate. Barack Obama, could tell US voters in 2008 that “it’s time [for the US] to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together” – a  fascinating take on Washington’s arch-criminal occupation of Iraq. The U.S. inflicted a bloody Holocaust on Mesopotamia, killing more than a million Iraqis and displacing millions more. According to the distinguished journalist Nir Rosen in December of 2007, “The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century.” (As president, Obama has more than once praised the US invasion for giving Iraqis a chance at freedom and democracy).

Recalling Tacitus

The reigning national and imperial amnesia is so great that Obama elicited no laughs or protests from the press corps when he said the following while announcing that the US would pursue normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba last week: “Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades” (since the Cuban socialist revolution of 1959, that is).

Orwell would have enjoyed that remark. As Marjorie Cohn recently reminded those who care about actual history, “Since the Cuban revolution….anti-Cuba terrorist organizations based in Miami have engaged in countless terrorist activities against Cuba and anyone who advocated normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. Terrorist groups including Alpha 66, Commandos F4, Cuban American National Foundation, Independent and Democratic Cuba, and Brothers to the Rescue, have operated with impunity in the United States – with the knowledge and support of the FBI and CIA.” The US has long protected Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carilles, anti-Castro terrorists who bombed a Cubana airliner in 1976, killing all 73 persons aboard.

Noam Chomsky goes into greater depth, reminding us that Washington’s mass-murderous determination to punish Cuba for breaking off from US control and capitalism brought the planet to the edge of thermonuclear annihilation in the fall of 1962:

“John F. Kennedy…launched a murderous terrorist campaign designed to bring ‘the terrors of the earth’ to Cuba — historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger’s phrase, referring to the project assigned by the president to his brother Robert Kennedy as his highest priority.  Apart from killing thousands of people along with large-scale destruction, the terrors of the earth were a major factor in bringing the world to the brink of a terminal nuclear war, as recent scholarship reveals.  The administration resumed the terrorist attacks as soon as the missile crisis subsided….A standard way to evade the unpleasant topic is to keep to the CIA assassination plots against Castro, ridiculing their absurdity. They did exist, but were a minor footnote to the terrorist war launched by the Kennedy brothers after the failure of their Bay of Pigs invasion, a war that is hard to match in the annals of international terrorism…”

“There is now much debate about whether Cuba should be removed from the list of states supporting terrorism. It can only bring to mind the words of Tacitus that ‘crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity.’”

“….One has to admire the stunning audacity of [Obama’s] pronouncement, which again recalls the words of Tacitus.  Obama is surely not unaware of the actual history, which includes not only the murderous terrorist war and scandalous economic embargo, but also military occupation of Southeastern Cuba for over a century, including its major port, despite requests by the government since independence to return what was stolen at gunpoint – a policy justified only by the fanatic commitment to block Cuba’s economic development.  By comparison, Putin’s illegal takeover of Crimea looks almost benign.”

Common Sense and Impunity

As for the notion that the best thing for the federal government to do about the incredible global campaign of torture conducted by US intelligence and military personnel on orders from the White House after 9/11 is to forget about it, what, really, can one say? I could cite and quote numerous leading civil libertarians and legal experts on how such facile reasoning (all the more revolting from the mouth of a president who is a former Constitutional Law professor) reinforces the impunity of imperial torturers, telling them they’ve got an advance “get of jail free” pass the next time Uncle Sam decides to open a big new global can of “enhanced interrogation” in the name of freedom. But fancy legal arguments from the ACLU and Amnesty International aren’t really required here, just common sense [1].  When monumental crimes go unpunished with little more than a regretful acknowledgement that the “techniques” in question didn’t really accomplish the noble goals that supposedly motivated those egregious transgressions, you can be damn sure they will be repeated in one form or other in the future.

Two plus two equals four.  No torture apologist’s or torture exonerator’s twisted logic can make it equal five.


  1. Even the imperial editors of The New York Times feel compelled to call out the inanity of the president’s tortured logic for refusing to prosecute or even investigate anyone responsible for US torture: “Mr. Obama has said multiple times that ‘we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,’ as though the two were incompatible. They are not. The nation cannot move forward in any meaningful way without coming to terms, legally and morally, with the abhorrent acts that were authorized, given a false patina of legality, and committed by American men and women from the highest levels of government on down… These are, simply, crimes.” New York Times editors, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” New York Times, December 21, 2014.

Originally published at Telesur 12/27/2014.

Paul Street is an independent researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City and Chicago. He is the author of seven books to date: They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011, co-written with Anthony DiMaggio); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History ( Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era(Routledge, 2005) . Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2014).

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