Law & Order Tackles Accountability for Torture. Will We Have It in Real Life?

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

"Jack, you want to prosecute a member of the Bush administration for assaulting suspected terrorists?"

"The word is 'torturing.' And yes — it's about time somebody did."

If you watch Law & Order tonight, you'll see that the "Jack" laying down the gauntlet on accountability for torture is veteran district attorney Jack McCoy. What McCoy understands is that in America, the rule of law applies to everyone. No one is above the law, not even (and some might say especially) the most powerful.

In this fictionalized but typically "ripped from the headlines" episode, McCoy decides to prosecute an author of a Justice Department legal memo authorizing torture, as well as his co-conspirators up the chain of command, including Vice President Cheney. ("This is an instruction on how to commit a crime and avoid prosecution," says McCoy's assistant D.A., referring to the torture memo. "A surgical parsing of words to draw hair-splitting distinctions between severe pain and extreme pain." "I know what we're talking about, sir. I don't need a memo to tell me what torture is," says a retired Army captain.)

In real life, there has yet to be an investigation into the high-level authorization of torture, a crime that has stained the reputation of our nation at home and abroad.

Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor to conduct a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of some specific detainees. It was a good first step and a positive sign given President Obama's commitment to "looking forward" at the unfortunate expense of enforcing the law. But a narrow investigation limited to interrogators and contractors in the field is woefully inadequate. There is voluminous information already in the public domain that the Bush administration's torture program was widespread, systemic and authorized at the highest levels of government. This evidence comes from congressional reports, the Justice Department's infamous legal memos and the CIA inspector general report released as part of ACLU litigation, detainees' accounts and even the boastful admissions of officials, including former vice president Dick Cheney, who has been aggressive in his defense of waterboarding.

But notwithstanding all this evidence, there are still those who would reduce the authorization of these crimes by government officials to discretionary policy decisions. And the attorney general appears to be clinging to a "bad apples" approach and resisting a thorough criminal investigation of not only those who committed torture, but also those who authorized and legally condoned it. Yes, these are weighty and politically fraught decisions. But once we start compromising our principles and laws because it is too messy, too inconvenient or even too painful to enforce them, we render them meaningless.

We cannot move forward confidently knowing that the abuses of the past will not be repeated by future administrations if everyone knows that crimes were committed and that the powerful who perpetrated and enabled them got off scot-free. A failure to prosecute those responsible for torture - those who authorized it, those who legally sanctioned it and those who carried it out — would essentially serve to ratify illegal behavior by government officials. The attorney general should launch a full-scale criminal investigation that will follow the facts where they lead, whether it be to prisons overseas or to the halls of power at home.

Tonight's Law & Order episode (8 p.m. on NBC), through its script, takes on the need to look ourselves squarely in the eye. "It's hypocritical to defend our values with torture," says the retired Army captain. "[W]hat is it about this country that you don't get?" asks the assistant D.A. of the lawyer who wrote the torture memo.

Toward the end of the episode, the assistant D.A. declares, "[I]t is not disloyal to hold our officials to the highest standards of conduct."

Indeed. In fact, it is the epitome of loyalty and patriotism to do so. Now the question is, in real life, will Attorney General Holder rise to the occasion?

Add a comment (7)
Read the Terms of Use


I agree that no one is above the Law. So why can the president and the DOE break federal law by implementing curriculum into the public school system? I thought we just established that NO ONE is above the law.

Mark B.

Every post on this blog is worth repeating to just about anyone who is concerned with these issues (and a big thanks to Mr. Romero for this latest one). I'm not sure where else to send/mention this, but there is a program at present which presents an opportunity for free search engine optimization to non-profit organizations for a period of 3 months. Here is the URL:

People who search for answers concerning these particular topics (especially regarding torture) deserve to reach quality information like that above first and foremost.

Keep it up and take care.

-Mark B.

william pearson

I think this tv show should do what it intends to do .I do not think torture is bad when it comes down to me or them . I think all people in this world have a right to do what ever they want when ever they want to do it when it comes to survival or their FUTURE .

Craig Chapman

If anyone finds someone who knows about plans to kill me ormy family, you have my permission to beat the crap out of him to save these lives, let alone pour some water on a towel placed on my head.

By the say, the show claimed torture has gone on at Gitmo. There has never been any evidence of this whatsoever, but why should that influence people's political agendas.

Sean Bauer

Your replies (most) are woefully illogical.

To Craig in particular, it is the American System of freedom that has put your family in a safe place, and that didn't start last week or last year, but over 200 hundred years ago.

Any quick review of history demonstrates that statistically speaking, the real threat to any human's safety is not 1 or 2 humans trying to kill your family, but a government or large group and it's leaders. They have killed millions over and over in short periods of time.

Unfortunately, torturing one or two of the group will most certainly not stop the violence.

Now at this moment you say torturing is ok, but only because at the moment it's not "your" group being tortured. Why? Because you were born in a country that was developed with better values than that.

The only thing that can hold off the nearly inevitable conclusion of every government in history (that is must keep a tight grip on it's people through fear and control), is the determined adherence of the population to a system that protects the individual rights over the government, even (especially) when it's not convenient to do so.

This system HAS protected your family presumably. I'm sure you can think of many countries, if you have any knowledge about the rest of the world, that if your family was born in they would have a lot to fear, and primarily by the people in power in that country and the government.

Oh you know you're safe now, because the American government will not become that dictator type government overnight. But what about your son? or his son? What happens when the government hears something he said out of line, pulls him out of high school, where he sits in jail and is tortured to death without ever speaking to an attorney.

Don't think it can happen here? Don't bet it can't. Do some research on Germany before The Nazi Conquest. Do some research on any governments. It can and most certainly does and has happened before.

By the way, and not that it's relevant, it has been proven time and again that torture DOES NOT get the desired result. Ie. if the group wanted to kill your family and one of their members got caught, they would still kill your family they would just do it at a different time and place, because they would immediately assume the person caught gave up any details he had.

So finally I'll leave you with this. If someone has plans to kill me and my family, please bring in the best investigators you can to figure out and stop it. But if they think the only option they have is to torture, I don't want them to proceed. They can stop and look for another way. If we die we die, but I don't want to die bringing down the system so many people gave their lives to create and protect. We, the United States of America, should be above that.


IN response to Craig's Letter.

I agree 100%

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. My body is but a temporary home - it is our spirit that matters -

I will fight for my children, my wife and myself, but I will thank no one for committing atrocities on a handcuffed, chained, imprisoned or helpless individual in the name of protecting our freedom.

The torturers have stained the American Honor; they have trampled upon the ideals and beliefs many of us hold dear. They should be punished to the fullest measure our laws will allow. Those most responsible should be punished most - not the scapegoats at low level responsbility.

Jim Gould

I totally GOOFED!!!
Craig, I am sorry, but it is Sean Bauer's letter, I agree with 100%.

The "ticking time bomb" theory is a marketing ploy to make people think - gee maybe the torture is OK...
No it is not - only twisted sadistic people use torture - they are not patriots
they are cowards of the highest order - and don't ever, ever, ever pretend you are protecting this American in any way shape or form with acts of torture.

Like Sean said - America - was not built overnight - and it was not built by men like these torturers

Sign Up for Breaking News