Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Torture Like It's USSR.

Today, Sullivan points me to a brilliant article in the NY Review of Books about a Red Cross report about torture in Guantanamo which until now has been classified (and can be found here).

When I think about torture and the way it has been talked about over the years I can't help but be confused on several levels.  On the one hand, the fact that it went on is virtually undisputable at this point.  On the other hand, the idea of exploring what happened and how and who exactly was responsible seems to be getting very little traction.  In the light of the multiplying (and now certified official) evidence, the Bush administration denied allegations of torture and went out of its way to sugarcoat its activity with Nazi-inspired euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" and at the same time justified those as necessary to protect the country.  And while abroad the US has been getting tremendously bad rep for its practices, the public here seems strangely passive on the issue.

To be fair, given the vagueness of the languague employed and the emotional calculation at play, the lack of popular outcry isn't entirely surprising.  The majority of the populace elected and - for the vast majority of its term - supported the Bush administration.  The administration tortured to protect the people it governed.  At the same time, the administration said that it doesn't torture, but whatever it is doing is done to protect the American people.  The message was not "torture is good", it was "whatever we do is to protect you".  This had several implications: first, the country could feel good about "whatever the government was doing" because it was meant to "protect them" and after all, it wasn't torture.  Second, by defining the terms of the debate, the administration automatically invalidated any arguments against torture - both on principle and as a matter of strategy.  Because the government wasn't torturing, there was no place in the debate to ask "Is torture right?" or "Does torture work?" or "Is it worth the damage it is doing to our reputation?"  Any debate around torture quickly became diluted by ridiculous polemics like "Is waterboarding torture?"

Mark Danner makes an interesting observation in his NYRB piece about the role that the American press played in propagating the administration's view by reprinting its wording: 

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press—to its "stenographic function" and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official—that the former vice-president's insistence that these interrogations were undertaken "legally" and "in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles" continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush's oft-repeated assertion that "the United States does not torture" is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. 

Ah, the power of words.  The pattern shouldn't be surprising to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the 20th century.  I just wonder if this sort of political behavior is a natural outcome of an organic course of events that somehow has a tendency to happen in turbulent times, or do the leaders actually get inspired by each other?

Either way, the net effect of controlling the terms of the debate - and the press complicitly reporting on the same terms - while reinforcing the overarching objective of national security - was such that by the time the evidence of clear undisputable torture started dripping out, the weirdly foggy non-debate has been going on for so long that the actual act of torture (a) was not really a surprise and (b) occurred in some confusing ethical vacuum that allowed people to distance themselves from it entirely.  In the meantime, people could feel comforted by watching episodes of 24, entirely based on the premise that extraordinary situations require extraordinary means, something that Danner also notes in his article.

It is scary but somehow almost understandable.  The question now is what happens next, with a new administration and new set of facts.  To that point, Danner ends his piece with 2 poignant paragraphs:

Philip Zelikow, who served the Bush administration in the National Security Council and the State Department and then went on to direct the 9/11 Commission, remarked in an important speech three years ago that these officials, instead of having that debate simply called in the lawyers: the focus, that is, was not on "what should we do" but on "what can we do."

There is a sense in which our society is finally posing that "what should we do" question. That it is doing so only now, after the fact, is a tragedy for the country—and becomes even more damaging as the debate is carried on largely by means of politically driven assertions and leaks. For even as the practice of torture by Americans has withered and died, its potency as a political issue has grown. The issue could not be more important, for it cuts to the basic question of who we are as Americans, and whether our laws and ideals truly guide us in our actions or serve, instead, as a kind of national decoration to be discarded in times of danger. The only way to confront the political power of the issue, and prevent the reappearance of the practice itself, is to take a hard look at the true "empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years," and speak out, clearly and credibly, about what that story really tells.

No comments:

Post a Comment