Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Epic Fail #2: Culture of Torture

Part 2 of my Four Fails series.

There is an argument that can be made (not by me, but others have) that invading Iraq was the right thing to do based on the information available at the time. It has even been argued that invading Iraq had to be done regardless of how imminent the threat to us from Saddam's now-known-to-be-nonexistent WMDs was.

Then, the argument continues, the problem with Iraq was the implementation not the provocation. If we had the right forces, some decent (any?) post-war planning, infrastructure improvements, we coulda woulda shoulda won the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. I’m picturing a neo-con dream featuring rose petal strewn roads, free and fair elections, religious harmony and peak oil production going straight to Exxon refineries.

Then came Abu Ghraib. The minute I saw the pictures of Lynndie England with an Iraqi prisoner on a dog leash, the cheerleader pyramid of naked detainees, and the now iconic hooded victim with his genitals hooked to electrodes, my disgusted visceral reaction was “Bring the troops home tomorrow. We’ve lost.” From that day on, we weren’t fighting to win in Iraq, we were in trash time trying to just beat the point spread. We had lost the high ground immediately and permanently.

The official statements of outrage were sharp and quick with all sorts of vague resolutions to get to the bottom of this atrocity. But there was no bottom to get to. We were already there and it only went up. Within our prisoner detention system, the institutionalized abuse was intentional, deliberate, and pervasive. Techniques used at Abu Ghraib were imported from Guantanamo which had been developed at secret facilities in Jordan, Thailand, Poland, and who knows where else.

The methods we adopted were borrowed wholesale from Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Korean War lore. We had become the enemy. Like in Animal Farm, you could look from pig to man to pig and not tell the difference.

At the highest levels of our government there were lawyers drafting legally suspect memos saying what could be done to who by whom. Entire new levels of euphemisms were developed like “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which anti-torture zealots like Andrew Sullivan find mighty similar to the terms in the original German) so that we could keep claiming that we don’t “torture,” just waterboard, starve, freeze, bake, and push to the limits of physical debilitation. Oh, and a few die every now and then, but that can’t be our fault.

Bill Clinton rightly took a lot of flak for his ontological musings of what “is” is, but the Bush Administration took legalistic hair splitting to new levels. Dubya compared the methods we used to fraternity hazing stunts (and the Skull and Bones alum should know). Rumsfeld compared stress positions to his choice to work standing at a desk all day.

One of the enduring myths of the American Experience is that we are a nation of ideals and values, not tribes and vendettas. Ever since we muscled our way to the international grown-ups' table at the end of World War One with our quaint naïve ideas of Wilsonian Democracy, we had always been snickered at as the people that actually believed what we said. Not any more. We are now just as dirty as any of them.

Our innocence has been lost and all for the sake of a few Jack Baueresque revenge fantasies. We used to be the Good Guys, the Boy Scouts, the Dudley Dorights (okay, technically Dudley is Canadian, but you get my point). Our actions have besmirched our reputation and as any fifties movie slut will tell you a good reputation is a lot easier to lose than earn back. Now we have black fedoras and wear monocles and carry around little trays of dental tools like a recurring character in Alias or some other torture-porn piece of pop culture that we are taking our debriefing tips from.

There is also a sadly quasi-racist undertone to our casually resorting to techniques that belong in bad WWII films. Would we be going down this road if the World Trade Center building had been destroyed by radical European neo-Nazis? We executed Timothy McVeigh by lethal injection, but we didn't hang him by his wrists in his cell for days on end. At least I assume we didn't.

And yes, I have seen the videos of terrorists beheading captured Americans with machetes. It sickens me and makes me despise the sense of religious righteousness that makes that behavior acceptable. We have always been better than our enemies. Especially when they don’t play by the rules and carry copies of the Geneva Convention on them.

It’s almost useless to rant on and on about this because you either Get It or You Don’t. I find it morally reprehensible that we have even opened this can of worms and spread it out on the table to try and pick out the least disgusting ones and call them acceptable methods. There are unrepentant elements that believe the ends always justify the means. They snicker when people get indignant over trying to ban treatment of untried prisoners that would result in jail time if your or I did it to an house pet.

And it isn’t just torture. The above-the-law Dirty Harry sense of angry retribution carried on into all the other levels of our government. Because so many were apathetic when the signs were in front of us, we have turned hypervigilant to the point of throwing out an entire nursery of babies with the bath water. You may not believe me, but there is somewhere a secret military organization devoted to domestic surveillance at levels that would make J. Edgar Hoover spin in his tutu. It was called Counter Intelligence Field Activities (Google it, I dare you), but that got too much attention and its replacement has only gone darker. You may think we are only going after The Bad Brown People That Want To Bomb Us, but once those jinni get out of the bottle they spread their mischief everywhere.

Dubya, the poster child for cognitive dissonance, in his last press conference called the events of Abu Ghraib "a huge disappointment" once again nauseating clear-thinking people with his understated lack of eloquence. Your kid having a keg party at your house is a disappointment. Buying him cases of cold medicine and batteries and then acting shocked when the cops bust his meth lab makes you a criminal accessory.

Dick Cheney, a man to whom the adjective Nixonian is a badge of pride, appointed himself Vice President because he felt himself to be the only person strong enough to restore the Imperial Presidency. That he picked as lackluster a vessel as George W. Bush to do it through is argument enough against the concept. We all know what power and absolute power do, but couple it with absolute idiocy and the results are terrifying.

Now that there is a new sheriff in town, a couple of potential reactions are being bandied around. Some say Obama is going to go easy because he needs the interrogation apparatus around even if he publicly has to despise it. Heaven forbid any buildings get blown up on his watch. Others want to just put the whole ordeal behind us and tell the jack-booted thug-attorneys that aided and abetted this travesty to go and sin no more.

That is not enough. The people responsible for twisting our principles so maliciously need to be called out and repudiated. For our own good and for the benefit of those that only sneer when we disingenuously protest that WE don’t torture. The only way to sanitize our hands from this stench is to have Congressional hearings, Presidential commissions, show trials (and for people higher than E-6), and public floggings in green coats. Well, maybe not a real green coat, that would be cruel.


Anonymous said...

People don't get that rights for the accused and detainees aren't about Them; they're about You. If the executive isn't checked by the judiciary, there's nothing stopping the executive from arresting whoever it wants by assertion and doing who knows what. And that whoever could be you. Cops make honest mistakes, and not-so-honest mistkes. When they put American-born US citizen Jose Padilla in a brig for years without a trial, that was a sign that they could do it to anybody.

yellojkt said...

And they essentially drove Padilla insane as a result of torture and drugs. If they can do that to a US citizen without consequences, they can do it to anybody.

Mooselet said...

Again, well written.

It has always amazed me that anyone could justify torture. If something is wrong, then it is wrong. If it is repugnant when terrorists cut the heads of journalists, it does not make it right for the US to torture detainees. Hell, it's even wrong to have detainees who are not charged under our Constitution. The US hasn't just abandoned the moral high road, they've destroyed it.

As an American who lives overseas in a pro-US country, I can attest first hand to the damage this attitude and mindset has done to our reputation. And this is in a friendly country! I can only imagine the damage in a country that is not inclined to be friendly.

I sometimes joke that I am on doubt on a watchlist somewhere because I have dual citizenship and live outside the US, but it's only partially a joke. Why else do I get searched every time I fly?

Can't wait for the next post.

yellojkt said...

It's not just you. I've been pullled off the plane to be questioned. We are now living in a totalitarian society of secret lists and random searches.

yellojkt said...

For some details of what we did to our prisoners, follow the link from this post from my new No Duh News blog.

2fs said...


(At least Jack Bauer had pangs of conscience occasionally about his torturing. Plus he's fictional...)

2fs said...

Oh, I forgot: re Josh's comment above, I've always thought that if Michael Dukakis had been thinking on his feet, when he was asked about his opposition to the death penalty with that infamous "what if your wife Kitty had been raped and killed?" his response should have been something like "And how would *you* feel about the death penalty if you'd been falsely convicted of that crime and sentenced to die because of it?" People don't get that, either: when there's a death penalty, it guarantees that, since no government, no court, no jury is perfect, an innocent person will be killed for a crime s/he did not commit. If you think that's okay, how exactly is that different from thinking it's okay that the murderer murdered in the first place?

Anonymous said...

Hate to split hairs. Lynndie England was not an MP, not a guard, touched no one. She did not even work at the prison (but elsewhere on the grounds). Her crime was to step into the photos of Graner who was her superior, and unfortunately, boyfriend 12 years her senior. What was her crime? She was in the pictures, which were stupid, but she was not involved in what we have now come to learn were "sanctioned" interrogation techniques.

The truth about Lynndie and what happened will soon be out. To many have fallen for the Bush Administration's version of what they were. Now that they have finally admitted (what Lynndie contended throughout her trial)that they sanctioned aggressive interrogation techniques (TORTURE) why isn't the world, but more importantly out nation, demanding that the seven soldiers whose lives were destroyed by following orders, be compensated? If everyone really knew what happened, you would realize that Lynndie was a scapegoat for a policy that was in place at AG, GITMO, and Afghanistan. I am close to the source - soon, even some of her superiors will be spilling the beans. Cheny and Rumsfelf are the true criminals.

yellojkt said...

I don't doubt that Lynndie was a scapegoat. That is why I want a full and real investigation. Someone abused those prisoners and someone ordered them abused. I want to know who, but I'm obviously not going to learn from this administration and probably not from the next.

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