Whilst we all watched perhaps the most pointless debate in presidential history last week, I found myself wondering whether there will actually be any real substance to any of these debates. Has political theater taken total control of the American political process? I mean, yes, I support Big Bird and I had a good laugh tracking Twitter during the debate, but at what point do the candidates get serious and move from offering sound bites and zingers to actually talking about and debating the real issues? There are important decisions to be made by the next president, and the American public deserves real discourse about them. They deserve to see the real issues front and center, not swept under the rug or simplified into quippy one-liners.
As a prime example of our glossing over issues, I was shocked to see how quickly the internal memo leaked from the Mitt Romney campaign detailing his potential stance on "enhanced interrogation techniques" was cast aside. In this memo, Romney's advisors not only make some outlandish "factual" claims about the success of such techniques, but also suggest the former Governor's best course of action would be to reinstate President George W. Bush's Executive Order authorizing "enhanced interrogation techniques." This is the very same Executive Order President Barack Obama rescinded on his second day in office. Let's be very clear about this: Romney's advisors would like him to reinstate Bush's torture policies, and we've decided that's not important enough to talk about.
For the record, it is not only important enough to be talking about, but opens up the question of what other human rights issues are being ignored. What is the likelihood that during the foreign policy debate either candidate will reference their stance on the Responsibility to Protect (which ought to be central in any discussion of Syria), or actual policy decisions in relation to situations such as the violence in Sudan? Might they claim their support for basic human rights? Sure. Might they even decry the violence in certain regions? Likely. Will either candidate take the time to layout actionable plans? No. And the fact of the matter is, we are all complicit in this problem. From the candidates themselves, to the media, to the American public, we are all guilty of caving to the theater and forgetting the substance, myself included. I am a sucker for a good quote on a topic I'm passionate about, and occasionally overlook the fact that there might not be any substance backing up the eloquent wording.
The torture debate is especially interesting because it is not only a matter national security, but I would argue illustrates who we are as a country. It is a representation of our values as a nation. It begs the question of whether we value security over moral authority. Perhaps we do, perhaps we don't. Either way, it is a discussion that deserves to be had. Further, it is a topic that Americans used to generally agree on. The fact that there is no longer agreement calls for ongoing inquiry.
While President Obama's track record on topics such as indefinite detention has been less than impressive, he has stood firm in his commitment to the idea that the U.S. does not torture. It is not who we are, and not who we desire to become. Historically, regardless of political party, U.S. Presidents have stood firm in their objection to the use of torture (at least on a policy level). On April 18, 1988, under then president Ronald Reagan, the U.S. signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. According to Reagan, ratification of this convention would, "clearly express the United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today." Reagan, of course, added language detailing that while the U. S. was signatory to this treaty we would not be subject to accusations of torture. Nonetheless, he maintained his belief that torture was not a practice America should be involved in.
This all changed after September 11, 2001. All of a sudden torture was not simply something America didn't do. It was a potential practice to be considered. The "ticking time-bomb" scenario became the excuse for all those who didn't believe in torture, except when this 24-esque hypothetical situation presented itself. In a moment, the discussion jumped from one where we were in general agreement that torture is wrong to one where we were divided perhaps irreconcilably on the issue. It became not simply a matter of whether torture was right or wrong, but a matter of when it was "less wrong" because its use served a greater purpose. Romney's advisors have him headed back in this direction, and we seem content to let that reality slip under the radar.
As we find ourselves part of the intricate web that is the international community, it becomes ever more important for us to know where our government stands on human rights issues. This is especially true when it is a matter of violations we as a country might be committing. Ultimately, whether you're passionate about national security, foreign policy, or domestic issues, human rights matter. Our human rights record dictates how we interact with our allies and influences how the international community views us. If we do not push the conversation and force our politicians to join the conversation, then we are handing our government a free pass to make these decisions without us.
Follow Corrie on Twitter @corrie_hulse
Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, US Foreign Policy, R2P, Human Rights, Torture