Monday, August 31, 2009

Is There a Defense for Torture Ever?

Hat tip to Beach Bum for the video below depicting the lovely upcoming Rethuglican plans (aiding in the effectuation of real Death Panels). (Like the diversity card?) Peter Beaumont informs us about the history behind a now-known fact that wasn't hard to guess earlier (from "The Guardian"): The CIA's Willing Torturers and that they had Only Two Weeks' Training For CIA Interrogators. (Emphasis marks added - Ed.)

The CIA report into prisoner abuse reveals a new, ugly reality: America's torturers weren't simply following orders. There is a moment in the still heavily redacted CIA inspector general's report into its use of harsh interrogation techniques against al-Qaida suspects that speaks volumes of how torture is allowed to become acceptable. Oddly it is not to be found in the details of the most egregious abuses: the mock executions, the simulated drownings and physical abuse, the intimidation with power drills or guns or the threat that one's family may be killed or raped. Instead it is to be found in a discussion between a CIA interrogator and the agency's headquarters about a technique an officer had found to be effective. The discussion, from 2003, centred on the use of "water dousing" – which involved placing the detainee on a plastic sheet and flooding him with water for 15 minutes. The reply is fascinating in a chilling way. In its advice, attempting to mitigate the risk of any future prosecution, it suggests the detainee should not be placed naked on a concrete floor but on a towel or sheet. The air temperature, the cable from heaquarters continues, must exceed 18 degrees centigrade if the victim is not to be dried immediately. In these words there is the awful intimacy that violence requires. It would be easy to see in such an exchange a concern for the rights of the prisoner. What it reveals in reality – as do the torture memos constructed by the likes of John Yoo and Jay Bybee that supplied the legal framework for the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques – is something of the intellectual processes and conversations behind the rationalisation of torture in the George Bush era. In his book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram described the experiment he had devised about the willingness of persuading participants to obey authority figures in inflicting what they believed to be extreme and dangerous pain on another human (65%).

The work of Milgram and Leonard Bickman after him demonstrated the general innate tendency of people to obey figures or institutions of authority even when it was not in their best interests – a situation intensified in institutions, like police, the military and security services, whose membership both tends to be more social conservative and in whom the values of discipline and obedience is deliberately fostered.

But this is not a question simply of authority. What is demonstrated here is that other processes are at work as well. And while both Republicans and Democrats, including Barack Obama and again on Monday former vice-president Dick Cheney, have tried to insist that individuals officers should not have to bear the burden of guilt for a wider policy, what is clear – as US attorney general Eric Holder has recognised – is that even within the context of obedience to tasks set within the context of a national security interest, the defence of only obeying orders is never a valid one.

What is critical about the quoted exchange is the way that it has joined up the dots. It demonstrates that at every point in the chain of command and conception of the policy, individuals were actively investing in it both intellectually and morally.

For while we have long known, through the release of the torture memos, about the legal framing and design of a torture policy that came down from above, what has been absent has been the raw detail of the keen individual torturer's own rationale.

Now we can see it. How the men set to the task of torturing – released largely from normal constraints – improvised wildly as they constructed their sordid scenarios. And we can see too what happened to individuals. How with the legal constraints on what they could commit so nuanced, so flabbily defined, again and again they would step beyond even what the authors of the programme had deemed to be acceptable.

It is this that the CIA and its political supporters have so long tried to suppress, the ugly reality of what was intended in the policy of "enhanced interrogation": what it does not just to the victims, but to the victimiser and the victimiser's organisation. Even to the state apparatuses that condone and encourage it.

What it demonstrates is how a permissive culture of violence always breeds abuses, especially when those committing the abuse have been equipped with a self-legitimising narrative.

There is one thing more.

The need to supply a proper name to this. For while the use of all violence in service of the state inevitably requires special pleading, there is something in the cold conversation between men about the limits to the pain and suffering that they can inflict that speaks of nothing but depravity.

Read the interrogation report in full at: My hero, Glenn Greenwald, fleshes out (so to speak) What every American should be made to learn about the IG Torture Report :

GOP Congressman Peter King - the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee - had this rancid outburst today in Politico regarding Eric Holder's decision to investigate whether laws were broken by the Bush administration's torture:

"It’s bullshit. It’s disgraceful. You wonder which side they’re on. [It's' a] declaration of war against the CIA, and against common sense. . . . When Holder was talking about being 'shocked' [before the report's release], I thought they were going to have cutting guys' fingers off or something - or that they actually used the power drill. . . "

Pressed on whether interrogators had actually broken the law, King said he didn't think the Geneva Convention "applies to terrorists."

Never mind that the Supreme Court in Hamdan ruled exactly the opposite: that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to all detainees, including accused Terrorists. Never mind that the War Crimes Act makes it a felony to inflict "prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from . . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering. . . ." and that these acts are therefore criminal whether or not King likes them.

Never mind that scores of people have died - not merely been threatened with death - in American custody as a result of "interrogation tactics." Never mind that Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture which compels the U.S. to prosecute anyone authorizing torture; that the Treaty proclaims that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever . . . may be invoked as a justification of torture"; and that Reagan himself said the Treaty "will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today."

And most of all, never mind that King has no idea whether these people are actually "terrorists" because the people we tortured were never given trials, never proven to have done anything wrong, and in many cases were - as federal courts have repeatedly found and as the CIA IG Report itself recognized - completely innocent.

My email inbox and comment section are filled with King-like accusatory sentiments that to oppose Torture is to defend Terrorists, because Terrorists deserve to be tortured, and that to oppose their abuse is to be treasonous because it's terrible to care if Terrorists are abused, etc. etc. In his 1795 essay, which he entitled Dissertations on First Principles of Government, Thomas Paine wrote this as his last paragraph:

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

Can that be any clearer? Of course, Paine also wrote in Common Sense that "so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king" and "in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other." And in his Dissertations, he also wrote:

The executive is not invested with the power of deliberating whether it shall act or not; it has no discretionary authority in the case; for it can act no other thing than what the laws decree, and it is obliged to act conformably thereto. . . .

For anyone who believes in the basic principles of the founding, the fact that these acts of torture are illegal - felonies - ought to end the discussion about whether they were justified.

Few things are more repellent than watching the contemporary Right in America invoke the principles of the Founders - in general - to justify their warped and lawless authoritarianism. But nothing is more repulsive than watching them pretend that Thomas Paine - of all people - has anything to do with them (Glenn Beck actually wrote his most recent book based on the explicit pretense that he is the modern day Paine).

Any casual reading of Paine makes clear that, today, he would be so far on what is deemed the "left" side of the spectrum that you'd be unable to find him. Paine is nothing but what Joe Klein refers to as a "crazy civil liberties absolutist" and what Rush Limbaugh similarly calls "far, fringe, lunatic kooks, far left radical lunatic fringe."

The Right today argues that condemning torture is wrong because the people who were tortured were just Terrorists - barely human - and they deserve no defense, not even the force of law.

Thomas Paine argued as a first principle that those devoted to liberty "must guard even his enemy from oppression." Could the contrast be any more stark?

UPDATE: The version of the IG Report released yesterday was heavily, heavily redacted. It is now being reported that several of the redacted provisions detailed at least some of the deaths of detainees at the hands of their U.S. captors, while other detainees were simply "lost."

Suzan ____________________

No comments: