What is torture?
Torture is like rape and pornography. Even though lawyers might argue over the definition, everyone knows what it is.
The timidity of American journalists around using the term torture has little to do with the mystery of how it’s defined and everything to do with their obsequious deference to political power.
Imagine if Bill Cosby was to respond to the allegations swirling around him and said: “Sure, I drugged several women and then had sex with them, but I didn’t rape them,” would he then have interviewers asking him how he defined rape?
Of course not. Likewise, it’s irrelevant how Dick Cheney defines torture.
Cheney can hide behind definitions conjured up by the Office of Legal Counsel no more legitimately than Adolf Eichmann could use his “just following orders” defense for his role in the Holocaust.
Did the CIA engage in torture?
Suppose there was no evidence — nothing more than unsubstantiated allegations that the CIA had engaged in torture — then it would be reasonable to ask whether these allegations had any basis. But the evidence is abundant and comes from official records.
The fact that this question is still even being raised shows the extent to which the CIA and its defenders have successfully manipulated political discourse around this issue.
Does torture work?
Torture defenders, recognizing that despite the efforts of Cheney and others to deny that torture was used by the CIA, have mostly moved on to their second line of defense: it saved lives. For legal reasons they will not explicitly confirm that torture was used, but they do so implicitly by asserting this justification, that it “saved lives.”
The media and many in Congress have bitten the hook in this argument by legitimizing the question: does torture work?
If torture can be shown to “work,” its alleged efficacy reinforces the claim that its use is imperative.
This then becomes an emotive argument of necessity. It suspends any serious analysis of the morality of torture by appealing to the simplistic, populist rationale that desperate times call for desperate measures.
Torture’s an ugly thing, but when the future of America was at stake, sacrifices had to be made — so the argument goes.
In an interview broadcast this weekend, former CIA director Michael Hayden said: “This was done out of duty. I mean, it’s hard to suppress your humanity.”
In other words, those who engaged in torture had such a deep sense of duty to their country that they were indeed able to suppress their humanity.
Aside from the question as to whether it’s ever a virtue for patriotism to trump a sense of humanity, the purported sense of necessity which legitimized torture apparently never actually rose to the level that anyone was willing to knowingly break the law. In other words, no one came to this conclusion: We have no choice but to break the law and engage in torture because we put the interests of our nation above our own.
On the contrary, the apparent necessity of using torture was made contingent on guarantees that those who authorized its use and those who engaged in it, would not place themselves in legal jeopardy.
So those who now trumpet their patriotism by declaring that they did what they had to do in order to save lives, should really be saying, we were willing to do whatever we could to save lives without risking losing our jobs.
For American torturers and their overseers, job security and legal impunity were more important than national security.
And let’s be clear: President Obama understands that this was the deal and he is glad to keep his end of the unspoken bargain not only to honor the expectations of those who tortured in the line of duty, but also because he expects for himself similar protection in the future. That is to say, Obama currently shields torturers from prosecution, so that a decade from now he will not be charged with murder — having ordered hundreds of summary executions through drone strikes, this being Obama’s alternative to the legally messy problem of handling suspected terrorists.
Did the CIA’s use of torture prevent future attacks?
Cheney says that the fact that the U.S. has not faced another large-scale attack since 9/11 is proof that the program “worked.”
Anyone with half a brain should be able to see that this is a bogus line of reasoning. The absence of such an attack can be attributed to multiple causes, such as improved airline security, improved surveillance, and the diminished abilities of al Qaeda to organize such an attack. Yet the fact that there hasn’t been another 9/11 for thirteen years doesn’t preclude there being another surprise attack tomorrow. If that happens, then the alleged success of Cheney’s program will instantly be exposed as a delusion.
The only way in which future attacks can be shown to have been foiled is by plans and planners being intercepted. In and of itself, the absence of another 9/11 proves nothing.
Were innocent people tortured?
Paradoxically, this is a question that perhaps more than any other legitimizes torture since it implies that the greatest injustice in torture is for it be applied unfairly — to the innocent. Thus, those who were not innocent could, it seems, perhaps justifiably have been tortured.
The insidious effect of this question is evident in the fact that in the midst of a massive amount of media attention on the subject of CIA torture, the focus of that attention has been on the perpetrators rather than the victims of America’s torture programs.
Torture is in the spotlight and yet somehow the victims remain in the shadows.