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Torture: A Mockery of America’s Regime Principles



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National politics during much of December 2014 was punctuated by a highly mediatized and frequently acrimonious discussion and debate concerning the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) foray into rendition and torture during President George W. Bush’s administration.[1] Among other findings, this exhaustive inquiry found that the Agency’s use of torture was more extensive and heinously cruel than previously thought, and that its perpetrators had misled political leaders concerning the reach and range of its activities. Given our current polarized politics, it was no surprise that those who led and supported the torture effort, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republican Party leaders, immediately criticized the investigation as partisan, although they provided no information to support their claims. More interesting, Cheney and Bush each accepted personal responsibility for the program and indicated they were indeed aware of the CIA’s efforts. In short, in December, a former American President and Vice President publicly acknowledged they knowingly broke Federal law and international treaty obligations and sought to conceal that fact from the citizenry and Congress. This has led many people to argue that these individuals, and the CIA and Justice Department officials who sought to justify and/or undertook these acts, should be held legally accountable for their actions. To date, President Obama has resisted such calls, apparently on the basis of the likely political and potential constitutional crises such an effort would represent. He has instead condemned and banned such actions and asked the nation to look forward. In the wake of the Senate inquiry, many of the individuals responsible for the nation’s rendition, secret prison and torture program have vigorously sought to justify their actions, particularly Cheney, by arguing these efforts had produced important information that had prevented additional terrorist incidents. But neither military officials nor the Senate Committee investigation of voluminous CIA evidence could verify his contention. In short, even when one is willing to set aside the immorality, illegality and cruelty of torture and argue its supposed merits on strictly utilitarian grounds as Cheney has done, there is no evidence that “it works” as he has contended.

Opinion polls show that a slight majority of Americans, although sharply divided on the question, seem to support torture of alleged “terrorists” on just such a rationale, and out of fear, despite the fact that it contradicts the Constitution’s foundational devotion to human rights. For example, the Pew Research Center published a national survey of citizens concerning torture on December 15th. That sample found 51 percent of those responding agreed that the CIA’s interrogation methods were acceptable when employed to obtain information to prevent terrorist attacks. Notably, however, the respondents were deeply divided, with 76 percent of Republicans taking this stance, and 37 percent of Democrats doing so. Judging from this poll at least, more Americans than not assume both that torture produces usable information (for which, again, there is no evidence) and that it is justifiable for that reason. This makes torture different in many citizens’ eyes apparently, despite its intentional brutality, than a crime such as stealing, which no one would argue is somehow more acceptable when it results in funds for the thief. This fact is at least food for thought.

Significantly, the fact that torture contradicts our nation’s most basic political principles, while also breaking law and producing nothing beyond the diminishment of our society and regime before our citizens and the world, seems never to have troubled Bush and Cheney’s calculus. If one believes their rhetoric at least, they perceived the country to be engaged in a Manichean War against evil and each was resolved to use any and all means to address it, especially Cheney, by his and others’ accounts. Held up in the cold light of what each man supported and now seeks to rationalize, it is clear these leaders succumbed to the hysteria and widespread desire to find someone to blame and to attack that gripped the nation following the 9-11 attacks.

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to expect more of our leaders than that they enable our basest and least considered instincts. No one forced Bush and Cheney to select the course on which they embarked; they chose it and pursued it in secret in the knowledge that it violated law, treaty and U.S. principles. The Senate report has now highlighted the full range of the deceit and malignancy of America’s actions at the behest of these leaders following September 11. As a result, it is clear that those involved were willing to jettison all democratic principle in service to fear and misplaced vengeance.

The continuing controversy concerning the Intelligence Committee’s investigation likewise has shown how far the country’s current focus on the purported utility of torture has veered from the far more significant matters that report addressed. Several of those basic findings deserve mention here:

First, all those who ordered and participated in the nation’s torture program knowingly broke existing law and treaty obligations. This is simply a fact that may not be set aside on utilitarian or any other grounds. What is up for debate is whether and how these individuals should be held accountable for their actions.

Second, it is already clear that the warnings long expressed by many military experts that torture of one’s foes will do little but later yield torture of one’s own has come to pass. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has symbolically chosen to dress its American and other western prisoners in orange jumpsuits prior to their mistreatment and (frequent) execution, in open imitation and derision of past CIA practice.

Third, the Senate Report revealed that the nation’s torture regime was both larger in scale and more morally repugnant and abhorrent than previously known.

Finally, the Intelligence Committee investigation inquiry has drawn attention to what amounts to an open wound, not only concerning what this country’s leaders were willing to do in the name of revenge and fear, but also concerning what criteria should guide the nation’s basic actions—fear, cynicism, cruelty and a self-validated utilitarianism, or an obeisance to our regime’s principles, even when those demand that we temper our collective panic.

On the last of these points particularly, the Senate Committee called for transparency with the general public concerning our nation’s past actions and a pledge to return to our higher ideals concerning human rights. For their part, Cheney and Bush and their political allies have suggested that however abominable, “what works” in their view, at least in so far as torture is concerned, should be allowed to trump the nation’s highest principles and aspirations. In addition to these issues, the controversy concerning the Senate investigation’s findings illustrates how far our society has descended into a “child-like impulsiveness that is oblivious to long-term consequences,” as Paul Roberts has recently argued in The American Scholar.[2] Our country’s leaders deserted our core ideals to pursue the vengeance for which we collectively cried following the September 2001 terrorist attacks with little apparent regard for the moral or democratic implications of their actions.

It is also telling, and more than paradoxical, that the individuals who held two of our country’s most important elected posts argued in very public fora that ends always justify means, no matter how horrid and demeaning the methods adopted. Our nation’s then leaders mocked our regime’s most cherished tenets in the name of just such a contention. It is puzzling and sad that such utilitarian argument persists when it has been shown to be logically fallacious and factually empty.

Nonetheless, in our collective fear and increasing impetuousness many Americans have supported their leaders as they embraced the use of torture, sullied their nation as a beacon for human rights and decency and endangered the lives of their soldiers and citizens in the future. Whether those who perpetrated this grave ignominy and continue publicly to embrace their handiwork are ever held legally accountable, it is clear the costs of their actions for our nation’s standing in the world and for many of our citizens’ understanding of their own regime and freedom are already incalculable.

Note to readers: This Soundings is the 200th commentary I have completed since beginning to write such efforts in July 2008. In addition, this column’s publication marks almost exactly three years to the day since I began writing Soundings weekly. I want to thank all of you who have read and remarked on these efforts and encouraged me as I embarked on what for me was an unknown and unmarked path. I have learned much about the warp and woof of our nation’s politics and democracy, about writing and about myself by composing these essays. I will now write this column on a periodic, rather than weekly basis, and at least monthly. When published, Soundings will continue to appear on Mondays. MOS



[2] Roberts, Paul. “Instant Gratification,” The American Scholar, Autumn 2014, p. 21.

Publication Date

January 1, 2015