Torture Should Be Accounted For

Torture is among the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It should never be excused, it should never go unpunished. It is not about who the tortured are, or what the tortured know. It is not about what they have done, what they believe, or whether they would do the same. It is about who we are, and how human beings should be treated. It is about our humanity, that is all.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Torture Temptation

What I find most remarkable about America's debate regarding torture -- beyond the fact that such a debate could even be necessary in America -- is the continual recourse of both proponents and opponents to the question of whether torture works. I can't think of any other illegal behavior -- not murder, not rape, not kidnapping, not assault -- that receives this kind of rhetorical makeover. When a murder has been committed, you don't hear people agonizing over whether killing can never, ever be justified. When someone has been raped, people don't ignore the crime in favor of a discussion of whether a rapist's satisfaction could possibly be proven to outweigh a victim's trauma and horror. If a child is kidnapped, the airwaves aren't polluted with discussion of whether kidnapping might actually be an effective way of acquiring ransom money. And so on.

Torture, apparently, is different. Let's talk about why.

Unlike other crimes, torture has a constituency, in the form of the architects who created America's torture regime. These are the people who feed the public discourse with a steady supply of, "Can you really say that torture never, ever works?" And, "What would you do if your child were kidnapped and the kidnapper refused to reveal the child's location?" And, "How can you compare enhanced interrogation techniquing one terrorist to the 3000 people killed on 9/11?" Etc. The architects, and their media allies, know that as long as the talking heads of television and gatherers by office water coolers, literal and electronic, are discussing the morality and practicality of torture, they won't be talking about the illegality of torture.

But this supply-side explanation is only part of what makes torture different. The supply would have nowhere to go in the absence of demand. And the demand is what we most need to guard against. Purveyors of torture excuses will come and go, but our psyches will never change.

I believe some deep place in the human psyche is attracted to torture. A fundamental aspect of human nature is an abhorrence of powerlessness and a concomitant will to power. And what greater confirmation of power, and banishment of powerlessness, is there than utter control over another human being -- body, mind, and soul?

We also abhor helplessness. It's horrifying to consider that over time we will never be able to entirely prevent terrorist attacks. We prefer to believe 9/11 happened because we failed to do something we could have done, that there's some extreme we can still resort to that will make us safe again, that if we do that thing from now on, we can gain greater mastery over the possibilities that frighten us. Because, for the reasons set forth in the paragraph above, torture is already seductive, we seize on it like a talisman custom-made for our fearful psyches.

So it bears reminding that the reason torture is universally illegal in the civilized world is a consensus that torture is not only evil, but also insidious, and that therefore we must guard against the temptation to torture by enacting and enforcing strict laws against it. These laws provide not just a bulwark against a recrudescence of torture, but act also as a signpost, wisely erected by generations before us, warning us to stand fast against the dark sirens of our worst impulses.

Leave aside the irony that it's self-styled "conservatives" who are so eager to ignore the accreted wisdom of generations past. That the consensus against torture is the work of generations -- the product of generations of mistakes and of continual, improbable appeals not just to morality, but to wisdom, too, to the better angels of our nature -- makes the more debilitating the right's progress in once again coloring torture as something respectable, even desirable.

It is nothing of the sort. Torture is an abomination. It is without exception illegal. Those who have authorized it and those who have carried it out have committed crimes. In the face of clear laws and clear evidence of violation of those laws, a rhetorical resort to theory or morality or practicality isn't just an attempt to obscure the commission of crimes. It's also an implicit debasement of the value of the law itself. Most of all, it's a profoundly unconservative attempt to reingest an evil seed civilization has over time and in the face of dark, conflicting impulses, managed largely to expel.

-- Barry Eisler

Cross-posted at Heart of the Matter. More here:

The Torture Mentality, Part 1

The Torture Mentality, Part 2

The Torture Mentality, Part 3

The Torture Mentality, Part 4

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Call For Action

A brief progress report

June 26th is the International Day Against Torture. It is the anniversary of the entry into force of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment. This year, we have a new president in the United States, one who made a commitment to end torture on his second day in office. I have already written about how hard I thought that commitment would be to live up to. We are seeing the difficulties mount with every new facet, just bringing the truth out for the American people to judge on their own is nearly impossible, apparently, as is actually closing down the machinery that has been set up, not to mention bringing perpetrators to justice.

Over the months we have seen the Obama administration uphold state secrecy in court, move against habeas rights for those held in Afghanistan, as if where you are held determines how much of a human being you are, ask for a continuation of the infamous military commissions, and most recently, fight tooth and nail to keep photographic evidence secret that the ACLU says proves the high level involvement in the types of supposedly "unauthorized" tortures we saw at Abu Ghraib. The President delivered a speech calling for indefinite preventive detention of some people, for a period characterized by the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as "until the end of this conflict, which means terrorism, against the United States, against her allies, and in the world abates." The prisoners at Guantanamo are not deaf. I personally don't think it's an accident that shortly there after, Muhammed Ahmad Abdallah Salih decided that indefinite was too long.

Over the same months we have seen the media, and the proponents of torture, narrow the debate to only the consideration of waterboarding applied to three men, and whittled down to a discussion over whether the current Speaker of the House was informed and when she was informed. An ongoing push is still in progress -- not to deny, any longer, that torture occurred -- but to argue that it was effective, and worth it, and stopping its practice will endanger national security.

Time to stop and take a look around

But this is not what has happened, it is not the proper list of facts, it is not the proper perspective of what has happened to this country. The torture has been widespread. It makes no difference whether those photographs show rape of children, as some assert, or merely show pictures of a prison door, like the picture shown in Torturing Democracy, that proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the treatment the prisoner inside was receiving was a matter of following very strict, and very detailed orders. Yes, getting it all out will show that many horrible things have gone on. There has been detention of children, there has been abuse of children. There has been detention of women, there has been abuse of women. There has been mass torture, and mass inhumanity. There have been all these things.

But if, in the American mind, it is necessary to have graphic brutality, to have blood spurting across the screen, and heads crunched against walls, to have intense and explicit physical pain and the scars to prove it, then we will never end torture in this country, and never again serve as a beacon for human rights in the world. Rightly or wrongly, we did once. Moazzam Begg makes one so very heartrending comment in the film Torturing Democracy. He says, "If the Americans are doing this, then what hope is there?"

The image of Saber Lahmar, dying on his mat in Guantanamo in solitary confinement springs to mind. Nothing is being done to him in that image. Nothing but loud mechanical noises from some equipment near his cell. Nothing but lights all day and all night all week and all year. Nothing but no contact with the world, no chance to see daylight, no chance to converse with other prisoners.

There is no photograph to shock the conscience in that treatment. There is no blood, no scars, nothing but a man slowly losing the feeling and movement of his limbs, his eyes, the windows to the soul, slowly clouding over, and with them the fog descends on his mind and destroys that soul. And none of the debates in Washington, none of the restraints that will make the detentions "better", none of the improvements to the military commissions, no debate over whether or not information was obtained, no declarations that we must move forward with the Muslim world, no speeches, no hearings, no photographs, will deal with the fact that one of the most deleterious tortures practiced in this whole sordid episode -- has been absolutely nothing. Lots and lots of absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing by the day, by the year, punishment for not providing the intelligence someone wanted to hear, or absolutely nothing for no reason at all.

When the United States comes to terms with how much torture has occurred, and why, it will have to come to terms with the tortures the American people would still not notice and not recognize. All the reversals of the present administration, all the debates, and all the forces that keep our country from looking at its own deeds, will have to be expanded. From three people who faced the waterboard, we must demand accounting for those who were stripped naked and shackled. From those stripped and shackled, we must demand accounting for those denied any sleep. From those denied sleep, we must demand accounting for those who faced the insanity of deprivation. And from those who faced deprivation, we musd demand accounting for those just disappeared and locked away, with no hope of being released, solely because someday whatever was in their minds might have once been thought useful.

A time for action

So torture hasn't stopped, and the fight to expose it hasn't stopped. And it goes without saying that those who ordered or committed it have not been brought to justice. And so another June is upon us. We must use this anniversary as a time to demand accounting and to bear witness.

I have updated the list of activities for this year, and will continue to update them. I appreciate any comments left here with more events, leave a link, I will check that the link works and add them to the list.

We would like if in addition to the usual orange ribbons, people would wear black, an armband or clothing, in a symbol launched in Pakistan for the rule of law. There's something about a black armband -- people ask you why you are wearing it. It's an opportunity to tell them why the rule of law is so important. It's an opportunity to ask for support for accountability on torture.

We would ask that people leave comments wherever you leave comments, asking for support for activities that will call attention to torture and demand action. Writing is good, dates and times are good.

We would ask that if there are local events in your area, that you support them and attend them. There are teach-ins this month, they are easy to set up, and many sites contain instructions. There are vigils and marches for those who like to speak with their feet. And if there aren't, well, there's always starting your own. Some movie houses may be amenable to a one time showing of their films if you are not charging money, and these provide a wonderful springboard for teach-ins. Call them. You may be surprised (If they are amenable to having their terms posted publicly, write me a comment and I will post them).

Over the month, I will try to be more attentive to posting again. And I shall have help. We will try to have some guest blogging on this site, and will begin within a few days with the comments of Barry Eisler. We will try to get more.

Please help. Torture isn't something that just goes away. And it's always been wrong.