Globalized torture and American values

What’s wrong with torture?

That might sound like a question that doesn’t need asking, yet given that there are so many answers circulating right now, it’s worth treating this as a question whose answer is not obvious. Moreover, the question needs to be broken down since we need to examine its two components: wrong and torture.

In their public statements, Bush administration officials always tried to duck the issue by claiming that their use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not involve torture. The spineless American press corps was complicit in facilitating this PR maneuver by also refraining from using the term torture.

But even while the administration denied approving the use of torture, it simultaneously developed a legal defense on the basis that torture might be a necessity for saving lives.

Despite the fact that for years, American journalists acted like dummies incapable of labeling something as torture unless given permission to do so by the political establishment, there was never much real debate inside the administration about whether its interrogation practices involved torture. The only question was whether they could use torture without risking prosecution.

The so-called “necessity defense” was one that attempted to absolve torturers of moral and legal responsibility for their actions by claiming that they had no choice — that they needed to torture in order to “save lives.”

As soon as the question gets raised — does torture work? in the sense that it might yield life-saving intelligence — the question of the morality of torture has been muddied.

The implication is that if torture could be shown to work, then even if it might be deemed wrong it is nevertheless justifiable because the wrong serves a greater good.

In this regard, many among the American Right — which otherwise postures as the stronghold of moral absolutists — turn out to be moral relativists.

The bipartisan argument against torture is one rooted in nationalism posturing as morality. Thus in her introduction, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, writes:

The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community’s actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review.

Instead, CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of US. law, treaty obligations, and our values.

In its use of torture, the CIA failed to “reflect who we are as a nation,” and it betrayed “our values.”

Torture is wrong — supposedly — because it is un-American.

Ironically, one of the distinguishing features of American values is that they are frequently cited yet rarely articulated.

This habit of invoking American values without spelling out what they are, indicates that to a significant degree, American values are not so much values as they are a form of national vanity.

To offer, “because we are American,” as an explanation for anything is to offer no explanation at all but rather to assert that there is some special virtue in being American.

No doubt, all those who now assert that the use of torture conflicts with our values would say that those values dictate that prisoners should be treated humanely.

Yet to suggest that humane treatment is in some sense a distinctively American virtue implies that it cannot be expected to prevail elsewhere.

Given the lack of human rights across much of the world, there is indeed some commonsense truth to this assumption — but there is also a contradiction.

The contradiction is this: a sense of what is humane rests on a sense of humanity, which is that on a fundamental level human beings are all endowed with the same capacities, and yet if there is a distinct virtue in being American, then supposedly Americans are in an important way different from everyone else.

If America must abstain from torture because it conflicts with America’s self-image, does a non-torturing America assume that torture will continue elsewhere — business as usual in a world that can’t be expected to live up to American values?

Even while the Bush administration refused to acknowledge that it had institutionalized torture, according to an Open Society report published in 2013, it nevertheless managed to win the cooperation of 54 countries in the following ways:

[B]y hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees; permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees; providing intelligence leading to the secret detention and extraordinary rendition of individuals; and interrogating individuals who were secretly being held in the custody of other governments. Foreign governments also failed to protect detainees from secret detention and extraordinary rendition on their territories and to conduct effective investigations into agencies and officials who participated in these operations.

Those countries were:

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

That the U.S. could find so many willing partners is clearly a reflection of American power and the fears that many governments justifiably harbor about being penalized if they were to resist American pressure.

But this also says a lot about prevailing attitudes towards torture. It’s use is always seen as expedient (or inexpedient) and the harm it does tends to be measured more in terms of how it will politically harm the perpetrators rather than the actual victims.

A few months ago, Congress received another report on torture, but this one gained only a fraction of the media and public attention that is being given to the current report.

That lack of attention followed from the fact that neither the torturers nor their victims were American — they were Syrian.

In July, the Daily Beast reported:

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is holding 150,000 civilians in custody, all of whom are at risk of being tortured or killed by the state, the Syrian defector known as “Caesar” told Congress on Thursday.

According to a senior State Department official, his department initially asked to keep this hearing — in which Caesar displayed new photos from his trove of 55,000 images showing the torture, starvation, and death of over 11,000 civilians — closed to the public, out of concerns for the safety of the defector and his family. Caesar smuggled the pictures out of Syria when he fled last year in fear for his life. Caesar’s trip had been in the works for months.

There was no audio or video recording allowed at the hearing; the House Foreign Affairs Committee said that decision was made in consideration of Caesar’s safety. He sat at the witness table disguised in a baseball cap and sunglasses, with a blue hoodie over his head. “We recommended to Congress a format for today’s briefing that would have allowed press access while addressing any security concerns,” said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman. A committee staffer alleged State had tried to prevent the hearing from happening at all.

The packed committee room sat in silent horror as new examples of Assad’s atrocities were splashed on the large television screens on the wall and displayed on large posterboards littered throughout the hearing room. Caesar spoke softly to his translator, Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian American Task Force, a Washington-based organization that works with both the Syrian opposition and the U.S. State Department.

“I am not a politician and I don’t like politics,” Caesar said through his translator. “I have come to you honorable Congress to give you a message from the people of Syria… What is going on in Syria is a genocidal massacre that is being led by the worst of all the terrorists, Bashar al Assad.”

The international community must do something now or the 150,000 civilians still held in regime custody could meet the same bleak fate, Caesar said. America had been known as a country that protected civilians from atrocities, he argued, referring to past humanitarian crises such as ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia.

Following the release of the Senate report on torture, President Obama said: “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.”

Move on, don’t look back, and ignore the rest of the world — these are the prevailing American values and they express no guiding morality, but instead an abiding indulgence in ignorance.

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