Point Austin: Torture and History

Revelations of the Bush torture programs are only the first step

Point Austin
Innocence is a luxury.

There's a whole wing of pop culture devoted to the presumed Loss of American Innocence, which some trace to the limitations on public prayer in schools, others to the assassination of President Ken­nedy, still others (with a good deal more reason) to the Vietnam War, through which we all should have finally learned that when a state becomes an empire, it will inevitably adopt the crimes of empire. So we don't have a right to be shocked at the most recent revelations of officially approved and sanctioned torture under the Bush administration. We learned a generation ago that torture, programmatic assassination, carpet bombing of civilian targets, and the occasional close-up massacre were all part of the tactical military arsenal during the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon administrations. As the old saying goes, we can't pretend to be shocked that there's gambling going on in Casablanca.

That said, as a youth I never expected to spend days on end – as I have over the past week – reading about the history and development of institutionalized torture over nearly a decade of U.S. bureaucratic and military initiatives. It's already difficult to keep up without a program, and each day brings newly disturbing revelations. This morning's New York Times (April 22), as part of an ongoing series by Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti, discloses that the officials in charge of installing the various torture programs through the CIA and the Defense Department never bothered to investigate "the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate." In fact, the torture methods being installed, recalls the Times, were those previously employed by "Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans." As the Times reports it, this alleged institutional ignorance allowed a consensus such that "the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned."

That might be persuasive, even exculpatory, if 1) the reporters have never heard of helicopter prisoner drops or electric generator torture in Vietnam or 2) it were even plausible that this entire squad of bureaucratic and military officials were universally ignorant of the history of torture, not to mention the explicit prohibition of the same in U.S. law, the Geneva Conventions, and a host of other treaties to which we are bound by law.

Uncovered Behinds

The most recent string of revelations began with the "torture memos" released by the Obama administration, four legal opinions prepared by Bush administration lawyers – Jay Bybee (now a federal judge) and Stephen Bradbury – for the express purpose of informing practitioners of interrogation what were the supposed legal limits of brutal treatment. The opinions themselves have the classic circularity of what are known in the legal trade as CYA memos: The would-be interrogators describe antiseptic versions of what they want to do (e.g., "We want to slam people against the wall, but it won't really hurt"); the lawyers deliver the requisite opinions insulating the actors from consequences of doing what they want to do ("It's legal to slam someone against the wall, painlessly"). The lawyers simultaneously insulate themselves by accepting the interrogators' descriptions at face value ("Water-boarding is legal, because the subject doesn't actually drown") rather than make any attempt at independent verification. That is, everybody's ass gets covered.

Each of the four opinions is an intellectual disgrace, but the worst is Bybee's 2002 memo to the CIA justifying its subsequently extensive torture of al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah (to reportedly little useful result), a subject who may well have been both inconsequential and mentally ill. Bybee is so prissy in describing the proposed torture methods – ranging from trivial "facial holds" through aggressive wall-slamming to the infamous water-boarding (recognized and condemned as torture for hundreds of years) – that he might as well be recounting recipes for quiche.

These opinions will undoubtedly become textbook examples of unethical and corrupt, essentially amoral, legal advice; whatever else happens as a result of their revelation, Bybee should certainly be impeached from his current judicial position.

Tell the Whole Story

This morning also brings the release of the 263-page report by the House Armed Services Committee on the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo, which I haven't yet read in full. (Favorite tidbit thus far, from a CIA attorney: "[Mental or physical torture] is basically subject to perception. If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong.")

Salon's Mark Benjamin highlights the report's confirmation that torture became part of the planned Bush program before the notorious legal opinions were even issued, before there even were any "high-value" detainees. Specifically, Benjamin reports that the administration began pressuring interrogators to use torture to produce intelligence connecting al Qaeda and Iraq (in order to justify the planned invasion). Despite warnings from experienced military people that torture subjects will say whatever is required "to stop the pain," the right results were needed, and the warnings went unheeded.

The current pressure to prosecute the advocates and theorists of torture (if not the direct practitioners), while understandable, seems for the moment premature. Yet President Obama's call for "reflection, not retribution" also seems utterly inadequate, and in any case it's the job of the attorney general, not the president, to decide on prosecutions. What we need first and foremost is for all of us to know exactly what happened, how it happened, and who is most responsible. That knowledge is beginning to accumulate. As Mark Danner wrote in The New York Review of Books, "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."

Innocence is a luxury we cannot afford.

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Vietnam War, New York Times, torture memos, Guantánamo, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, torture, Iraq War

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