Back into the Light

At an alumni function last year, I spoke with a friend I had not seen in over a decade. He had spent many of the intervening years in Afghanistan with the US Army, in an intelligence unit. I asked him his opinion of “Matthew Alexander” – the anonym of the military interrogator who had just then published an op-ed in the Washington Post describing the US military interrogation process as “deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American”.

My friend started with a disclaimer – that Alexander described things he himself had never seen; that most of the abusive practices had been carried out by the CIA, while the Army was strictly following their own Field Manual, which forbids torture, etc. But he also struck a note of disagreement with the op-ed, which advocated developing a rapport with prisoners to encourage them to give up information. That’s fine for low-level terrorist grunts, he said, but high-value targets like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the architect of the 9-11 attacks whom the administration frequently cites as evidence that “enhanced interrogation methods” work, would never break unless we broke them.

My friend is a very intelligent person whose opinion I respect and value, which is why this debate is so important today. It’s not just the masses huddling in fear who advocate torturing our enemies. It’s our friends and neighbors, our teachers and firefighters, and our trusted leaders clamoring to strap electrodes onto the balls of any prisoner who might know something about the next attack. They are the good citizens of Salem, lashing the objects of their fear to the burning stake.

There is no question that torture has been carried out by US forces. War crimes have been committed, and they have been authorized at the highest levels.

Dick Cheney admitted he was “involved in helping get the process cleared” for torturing Khalid Sheik Mohammed, alleged plotter of 9/11. Even in hindsight, he believes that waterboarding KSM was “appropriate”.

Waterboarding is a crime, a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, the Torture Act, the War Crimes Act, and the Prohibition against Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment. In its reports on other countries, the State Department refers specifically to waterboarding (and sleep deprivation, and beatings, and extended isolation – all approved by Cheney et al) as torture; the United States prosecuted Japanese officers after World War II for waterboarding American soldiers, and we prosecuted our own military officers who waterboarded prisoners in our war against the Phillipines back in 1898. American courts have ruled that it is a violation of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land.

Cheney would have us rely not on our laws, not on our traditions, but on our fear. Better to act, even if that action violates our core principles. Even if it puts us on the same footing as the evil forces that want to destroy us. He believes “the results speak for themselves.”

The results, according to Susan Crawford, are that these high-level al-Qaeda operatives, these terrorists who enjoy wanton death and destruction, cannot be prosecuted. Crawford is the convening authority on military commissions, the top administration official in charge of prosecuting those still held at Guantanamo (at least until tomorrow at noon). She said that the treatment of one of these high-level prisoners, Mohammed al-Qahtani, “met the legal definition of torture.” And because of that, she could not recommend putting him on trial as the so-called “20th hijacker” of the 9-11 attacks:

The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. … You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge [to call it torture].

Qahtani wasn’t even waterboarded. But the techniques used on him, with the approval of top administration officials, were torture.

Some of the brightest legal minds in the country were employed to justify these acts with rhetoric about the imperial powers of a war president. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld seized these legal briefings as evidence of their omnipotence, and proceeded to lay the Constitution to waste. And for what?

“We have recreated our enemies’ methodologies in Guantanamo. It will hurt us for decades to come. Decades. Our people will all be subjected to these tactics because we have authorized them for the world now.” –Malcolm Nance, Chief of Training, US Navy SERE Program, 1997-2001, in the documentary Torturing Democracy

9/11 did not “change everything”

What a disgrace we have brought upon ourselves. And yet the reaction of many of my fellow citizens is not astonishment or outrage, but meek acceptance. The world has changed, they argue. This is the Post Nine-Eleven world, where we live in constant fear of the others, the terrorists who want to kill us. The prisoners at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib or the secret CIA prisons do not deserve the protections of the Geneva Conventions because they are not human, because this is a new kind of war, because they are terrorists. But we have heard that before.

All war propaganda seeks the dehumanization of the enemy. The German soldiers in the US Army recruitment posters of the 1940s were little more than grayed-out humanoid blobs, their faces hidden in shadows. Today’s orange-suited terrorist is shuttled between fenceposts out in the scrubland as we watch on TV, a hood over his head, his eyes and ears swaddled so as to deprive him of his senses – to prevent him from human interaction with the world. And denied his due process of law on account of secret state evidence.

Burt Neuborne, Professor of Civil Liberties at NYU Law and a man who has argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court, explained his theory of the Constitution at a forum discussing the torture issue. The Constitution, he explained, is a nice deck chair. When it’s sunny outside, we like to put the chair on the deck and admire it. When it rains, we fold the chair up and put it in the basement. In other words, the Constitution is a very old document that has survived so long only because it’s never gotten wet.

General Anthony Taguba was at the forum, too. He wrote a report in 2004 investigating the torture at Abu Ghraib. Separately, he concluded that “the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.” Seymour Herch’s 2007 interview with the General is pretty damning of the administration:

In the meeting, the officials professed ignorance about Abu Ghraib. “Could you tell us what happened?” Wolfowitz asked. Someone else asked, “Is it abuse or torture?” At that point, Taguba recalled, “I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, ‘That’s not abuse. That’s torture.’ There was quiet.”

The enablers want us to engage in a debate about the effectiveness of torture. But there is no such debate, because torture has been demonstrated time and again to have no effectiveness whatsoever, at least not in what we would call productive terms. That is, if your goal is to physically and mentally incapacitate a person, or to satisfy your own sadistic desire for “revenge”, then torture is very effective. If your goal, on the other hand, is to extract true and useful information as part of your efforts to destroy terrorist cells around the world, torture does not help you. Rather, it very effectively works against you.

Terrorists expect us to torture them. That is what they are taught will happen by those who recruit them to incite terror. For we are the Great Satan, the devil who is trying to destroy their religion and their culture. Of course we would torture them. Now, what have we done but confirm what they already believed, the prime motivation for their jihad against us?

When our enemies capture our soldiers now and torture them, what will we say? That what they have done is illegal and immoral, and repulsive? How can we stand up for these truths when we ourselves have visited the same brutality on our enemies?

The Truth Commission

Because we are talking about war crimes, the question of how to proceed is a complicated one. Any attempt to prosecute Bush administration officials will be tagged as “revenge” by the torture apologists. The effort could easily weigh down the incoming government, taking time away from important issues like reviving the economy and ending the war.

However, the dangers of doing nothing are far more serious. If allowed to stand as a precedent, the approval of torture by Bush and Co. will provide cover for future leaders who choose to disregard the law and the principles this country was founded on, and to instead rely on their gut. As Scott Horton wrote in December, “[S]imply doing nothing not only ratifies torture; it ratifies the failure of the people to control the actions of their government.”

Horton’s piece is worth reading in full, because it outlines a course of action that ought to be acceptable to a majority of people. A commission should be formed which will investigate exactly what happened, and produce a comprehensive, unclassified report for the archives. If it finds conclusive evidence of crimes, those crimes would have to be prosecuted. There, of course, is the rub – but the alternative, to simply move on and forget what has been perpetrated in our name, would be to accept that our leaders are above the law, and that we are a nation that tortures.

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