A letter to Harper's Magazine by Joseph Marguelies of Chicago. Harper's entitled it "Stress Position":
In “We Still Torture” [Criticism, July, 2009], Luke Mitchell notes that President Obama has preserved much more than he has rejected of his predecessor’s approach to post-9/11 detentions. This fidelity to the past is not confined to detentions; regarding domestic surveillance and state secrets, the differences between Bush and Obama are likewise insignificant.
There is nothing unusual about a president who fails to deliver on a promise of change. What is striking is that so many people—on both the left and the right—seem to believe, contrary to all evidence, that change has indeed come, and that Obama has adopted a set of policies diametrically opposed to those of the Bush Administration. For some, this misconception—an alleged end to a shameful epoch—has occasioned a sigh of relief; for others, like former vice president Dick Cheney, it has produced alarmist consternation. Why do so many see so much in so little?
As with much in politics, it is a problem of perspective. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, post-9/11 detention policy is necessarily remote. Shrouded in secrecy, it operates in a realm set apart from our daily existence and completely beyond our influence. It exists as a collection of evocative images and ideas—black sites, Guantánamo, terrorists, torture—that are entwined with the most powerful political symbols in American life: race, national security, and, the most elusive of all, “American values.”
This potent symbolism guarantees popular interest in the debates surrounding our detention policy even as the policy’s remoteness means that people cannot intelligently evaluate these debates. Are the prisoners innocent men, wrongly detained and horribly mistreated? Or coddled terrorists committed to destruction and mayhem? Can they be tried in federal court or paroled into the United States? Or would they overwhelm our courts and disappear into the shadows only to strike again?
We are apt to forget that Americans rather recently attached inordinate significance to a junior senator’s dramatic allegations that Communists had infiltrated the State Department. McCarthyism and its attendant debates unfolded mostly at a symbolic level; today, the public’s passionate attachment to the course of detention policy is similarly untempered by reason.
Under such circumstances, people form opinions based on symbolic gestures from trusted voices. That is, when remote issues acquire symbolic significance, symbolic gestures substitute for actual change. In a recent speech at the National Archives, surrounded by our founding and most revered documents, President Obama announced that he had broken with the policies of President Bush and embraced the Constitution. The response was swift and predictable: obama reinstates rule of law. The details announced in the same speech, including Obama’s plan to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial—the same policy so detested during the Bush Administration—were generally ignored. The symbolic gesture (the closure of Guantánamo) satisfied the portion of the public that trusts Obama and alarmed the portion that does not.
It makes no difference—to either group—that Guantánamo may be closed but immediately re-opened elsewhere, or that Obama has stepped into the footprint left by the forty-third president. Political change is usually just symbolic change, and that, for most, is enough.