Torture’s not new in America — naming it probably is but the act isn’t. During our formative years, torture kept slaves in line, During Vietnam the CIA trained operatives to use assassination, rape, starvation and beatings — and electric shocks to the genitals of some Vietnamese communists — to glean intelligence and suppress the enemy.
Although rarely used, the morally indefensible act of torture remains part of the American arsenal — and an existential failing. We’re not alone with such ethical and moral failings, and we’re certainly better than most because we try to rise above such failings in those moments when we’re called to examine and recalibrate our communal conscience.
We were called to such a moment on Dec. 9 when a 525-page summary of the Senate Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, commonly known as the CIA Torture Report, was released. I read the report — all of it! For all I thought I knew before I was horrified. For my friends in the CIA, whom I know to be better than this, for those in our military tasked with protecting us, for the truly wretched and abominable nature of our actions, I was horrified.
I know many supporters of the torture program couldn’t have read it. I know they haven’t read it because the testimony of the pages of redacted material tells me that in those black spaces between the words are horrors that stain us all.
We now know Directors Brennan and Hayden and Vice President Cheney lied to us. We know people were tortured and some died, in our name. We know it’s unclear whether the intelligence gleaned from torture was actionable.
We know torture supporters believe it’s morally defensible to imprison, torture and kill Muslims in American custody without trial but indefensible to release the report. Some argue releasing the report puts Americans at risk. They’re wrong — I think the part of the world where we’re deeply enmeshed in conflict already believes — knows — we’re capable of the acts described, and of acts not yet described like the criminal use of drones and missiles in places like Pakistan and Yemen that cause such disproportionate civilian casualties — giving rise to new generations of people who will hate us for what they believe we’ve become.
I believe not releasing it puts us at risk — if it’s not released we can’t claim it. We need the truth to make us free.
I argue that we need to stand and say to those who waterboard and rectally feed prisoners — to those that plot drone attacks on American citizens in Yemen — not in my name. I argue that we need say that even if torture did work — and the CIA hasn’t made the case it does — that it’s morally indefensible, unethical, un-American and inhuman to do it.
Christopher Hitchens, after permitting himself to be waterboarded, wrote in a 2008 Vanity Fair article, “I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’ Well, then, Hitchens, continued, “If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”
In his criticism of the report, CIA Director Brennan said whether or not the use of such techniques (torture) led directly to actionable intelligence is “unknown and unknowable.” We do know, though, from FBI interrogators like Ali Soufan, who first interrogated Abu Zubaydah, that actionable intelligence was obtained without torture.
I wonder if it isn’t just a bit easier for more than 50 percent of Americans to support the use of torture because the enemy isn’t like us — they’re mostly different colors, they adhere to a different faith and live very far away.
Sen. John McCain said, “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”
America’s response after the 9/11 attacks — from rounding up the usual subjects (Muslim men) to the Patriot Act and the subsequent endorsement of torture resulted from huge and fanciful exaggerations, based on fear, of a threat from a criminal organization based in the wilds of Afghanistan. There was no massive plot, no Second Wave yet, from the torturing of American citizen Jose Padilla to the Bush-Cheney Iraq invasion based on fabricated intelligence, we broke the Middle East and scarred our own soul.
“Most of all,” McCain says, “I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.” — and which was signed by President Ronald Reagan.
Many would like to believe America is different, blessed, exceptional. That may be true, but we’re not the only ones who believe we are blessed. Unlike others, we have systems and laws that we believe distinguish us from others — that detail in our Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” — not some men some of the time. When we abandon the laws and restraints that distinguish us, we risk both becoming something other than what we believe ourselves to be, and any moral authority to have similar expectations of others.
The CIA and those Americans who speak in defense of torture speak from privilege — the privilege that comes from power that translates to never having to say you’re sorry, even when you’ve acted illegally. The privilege that means you can insist you’re right even when you’re wrong. And today, I believe, that is a morally indefensible attitude that threatens the ethical and moral core of our pluralistic and diverse American soul.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.