At times during my intermittent career as a manager, I have found it necessary to modify the performance of my direct reports. Although such modification does not, contrary to what you might have heard, actually involve whips, chairs or cattle prods, it can and usually does involve what we might discretely call incentives and disincentives. Rewards and punishments, in other words.
This is tricky business. My philosophy as a newspaper editor, given the relative rigidity of our deadline schedule and the high stakes involved with issues of factual accuracy, was to err on the side of harshness. My own adaptation of the credo approved by corporate HR went something like this: Bad behavior will continue until the pain of continuing the bad behavior outweighs the pain of altering it.
Monochromatic? Lacking in nuance? Guilty as charged. But it worked. The kid from the University of Georgia whose performance problems were driving me up a tree shaped up right quick once he realized he was facing the very real possibility of having to work every single Georgia home football weekend. Oh, yes, I did.
When you get to the level of government work, opportunities for bad behavior abound, and just about the worst behavior is torture. Unfortunately, Americans apparently have decided for political reasons that holding the torturers (including those who ordered torture) accountable for their behavior would be Bad Form, or whatever the current explanation is, blah-blah-blah-kharmacakes.
But there is, of course, a flip side to that approach, and that’s rewarding the behavior you want to see, in hopes of seeing more of it. We could, at the least, honor those who understood the law, remembered their training, opted to remember the law rather than soiling their drawers:
Throughout the military, and throughout the government, brave men and women reported abuse, challenged interrogation directives that permitted abuse, and refused to participate in an interrogation and detention program that they believed to be unwise, unlawful and immoral. The Bush administration’s most senior officials expressly approved the torture of prisoners, but there was dissent in every agency, and at every level.
There are many things the Obama administration could do to repair some of the damage done by the last administration, but among the simplest and most urgent is this: It could recognize and honor the public servants who rejected torture.
In the thousands of pages that have been made public about the detention and interrogation program, we hear the voices of the prisoners who were tortured and the voices of those who inflicted their suffering. But we also hear the voices of the many Americans who said no.
Some of these voices belong to people whose names have been redacted from the public record. In Afghanistan, soldiers and contractors recoiled at interrogation techniques they witnessed. After seeing a prisoner beaten by a mysterious special forces team, one interpreter filed an official complaint. “I was very upset that such a thing could happen,” she wrote. “I take my responsibilities as an interrogator and as a human being very seriously.”
I’m not naive. I understand that this probably won’t happen during my lifetime. Hugh Thompson Jr., the Army helicopter pilot who threatened, at the risk of his own life, to machine-gun U.S. soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam if they did not stop killing civilians, didn’t get official Army recognition for 30 years.
But if we can’t investigate, indict, prosecute and punish those responsible for torturing and, in some cases, killing prisoners in our custody — prisoners who in many instances had done nothing wrong — perhaps we can at least salvage something for those who tried to do the right thing, and for ourselves as a nation whose fraying reputation for morality, freedom and justice rests, if it rests at all, on their efforts. I don’t know if a Presidential Medal of Freedom means anything anymore — giving one to George Tenet, who signed off on torture, debases the brand — but there ought to be something we can do.