Thinking About Torture

I haven't written anything substantial, ever, about America's treatment of detainees in the War on Terror. There are good reasons for this, and bad ones. Or maybe there's only one reason, and it's probably a bad one - a desire to avoid taking on a fraught and desperately importantly subject without feeling extremely confident about my own views on the subject.

I keep waiting, I think, for somebody else to write a piece about the subject that eloquently captures my own inarticulate mix of anger, uncertainty and guilt about the Bush Administration's interrogation policy, so that I can just point to their argument and say go read that. But so far as I know, nobody has. There's been straightforward outrage, obviously, from many quarters, and then there's been a lot of evasion - especially on the Right, where occasional defenses of torture in extreme scenarios have coexisted with a remarkable silence about the broad writ the Bush Administration seems to have extended to physically-abusive interrogation, and the human costs thereof. But to my knowledge, nobody's written something that captures the sheer muddiness that surrounds my own thinking (such as it is) on the issue.

That muddiness may reflect moral and/or intellectual confusion on my part, since the grounds for straightforward outrage are pretty obvious. There's a great deal of political tendentiousness  woven into Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, for instance, but it's very difficult to come away from her reportage unpersuaded that this Administration's counterterrorism policies exposed significant numbers of people - many guilty, but some innocent - to forms of detention and interrogation that we would almost certainly describe as torture if they were carried out by a lawless or dictatorial regime. For a less vivid but also somewhat less partisan analysis that reaches the same conclusion, you can read the executive summary of the just-released Levin-McCain report. (And of course both Mayer's book and the Armes Services Committee report are just the latest in a line of similar findings, by reporters and government investigations alike.)

Now it's true that a great deal of what seems to have been done to detainees arguably falls  into the category of what Mark Bowden, in his post-9/11 Atlantic essay on "The Dark Art of Interrogation," called "torture lite": It's been mostly "stress positions," extreme temperatures, and "smacky-face," not thumbscrews and branding irons. But it's also clear now, in a way that it wasn't when these things were still theoretical to most Americans, that the torture/torture lite distinction gets pretty blurry pretty quickly in practice. It's clear from the deaths suffered in American custody. It's clear from the testimony that Mayer puts together in her book. And it's clear from the outraged response, among conservatives and liberals alike, to the photographs from Abu Ghraib, which were almost all of practices closer to "torture-lite" than outright torture but which met, justly I think, with near-universal condemnation nonetheless. (And while it still may be true that in some sense, the horrors of Abu Ghraib involved individual bad apples running amok, they clearly weren't running all that far amok, since an awful lot the things they photographed themselves doing - maybe not the human pyramids, but the dogs, the hoods, the nudity and so forth - showed up on lists of interrogation techniques approved by the Secretary of Defense himself.)

So as far as the bigger picture goes, then, it seems indisputable that in the name of national security, and with the backing of seemingly dubious interpretations of the laws, this Administration pursued policies that delivered many detainees to physical and mental abuse, and not a few to death. These were wartime measures, yes, but war is not a moral blank check: If you believe that Abu Ghraib constituted a failure of jus in bello, then you have to condemn the decisions that led to Abu Ghraib, which means that you have to condemn the President and his Cabinet.

Given this reality, whence my uncertainty about how to think about the issue? Basically, it stems from the following thought: That while the Bush Administration's policies clearly failed a just-war test, they didn't fail it in quite so new a way as some of their critics suppose ... and moreover, had I been in their shoes I might have failed the test as well. On the first point, I actually have found an essay that captures my sentiments; it's Wesley Yang's review of The Dark Side, in which he writes as follows:

The polemical energy of Mayer's book comes from her outrage at the violation of these values. In her introduction, she characterises the Bush Administration's conduct in the War on Terror as "a quantum leap beyond earlier blots on the country's history and history," and "a dramatic break with the past." She invokes the judgment of the eminent liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, that "no position taken has done more damage to the American reputation in the world - ever."

But Mayer overplays her hand, going on to write that "in fighting to liberate the world from Communism, Fascism and Nazism, and working to ameliorate global ignorance and poverty, America had done more than any nation on earth to abolish torture and other violations of human rights." Here Mayer confuses the fact that America has always supported human rights in principle with the idea that it has always championed them in practice.

The tactics of the New Paradigm, after all, did not have to be invented from whole cloth. After September 11, Cheney turned to the CIA's archives in search of examples that had worked in the past. "He was particularly impressed," Mayer writes, "with the Vietnam War-era Phoenix Program.

"Critics, including military historians, have described it as a programme of state-sanctioned torture and murder. A Pentagon contract study later found that 97 per cent of the Viet Cong it targeted were of negligible importance. But as September 11, inside the CIA, the Phoenix Program served as a model."

Mayer doesn't have another word to say about the Phoenix Program, and her reticence is telling, in a book that is otherwise so exhaustive in the way it details the histories of its major players and the institutional background of the responsible agencies. The Phoenix Program was a CIA-directed operation to interrogate, detain or assassinate a network of Viet Cong insurgents who were themselves torturing and assassinating South Vietnamese officials. A Senate investigation later concluded 20,000 Viet Cong were killed in the process.

Mayer doesn't specify what Cheney took from the Phoenix Program, but he certainly found confirmation that we had done these things before, and on a massive scale. CIA interrogation manuals issued in 1963 and 1983 and used by American client states in the proxy battles of the Cold War in Latin America and elsewhere also listed ways to force a recalcitrant subject to talk. She quotes a historian of the CIA noting that our latter-day torturers not only used those techniques, "they perfected them" - underscoring the fact that they were already there to be perfected.

Mayer is too scrupulous a reporter not to mention these departures from American values. But she is also too committed to a particular narrative - in which America's status as the country that "had done more than any nation on earth to abolish torture and other violations of human rights" has been suddenly hijacked by bad men in the Bush administration - to follow that disclosure to its conclusion.

Which is simply this: America has always remained true to its values - except in the rather numerous instances when it has violated them.

Yang describes this as one of "the genuine paradoxes of power that no nation-state aspiring to global leadership can evade." And indeed, the most compelling and intellectually-consistent condemnations of the Bush Administration have come from precisely those factions - on the left, and also the small-r republican right - who believe that the United States should not aspire to global leadership, because such aspirations require unacceptable compromises with the bloody realities involved in power politics and empire.

For those of us, though, who persist in the belief that some sort of American global leadership is better, for all its inherent problems, than most of the alternatives, Yang's analysis has to be reckoned with in ways that go beyond simply describing Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and the CIA "black sites" as unique affronts to American values. These and other Bush-era sins have to be considered in the context of previous moral compromises that we've found a way to live with.

For instance: The use of the atomic bomb. I think it's very, very difficult to justify Harry Truman's decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in any kind of plausible just-war framework, and if that's the case then the nuclear destruction of two Japanese cities - and indeed, the tactics employed in our bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan more broadly - represents a "war crime" that makes Abu Ghraib look like a trip to Pleasure Island. (And this obviously has implications for the justice of our entire Cold War nuclear posture as well.) But in so thinking, I also have to agree with Richard Frank's argument that "it is hard to imagine anyone who could have been president at the time (a spectrum that includes FDR, Henry Wallace, William O. Douglas, Harry Truman, and Thomas Dewey) failing to authorize use of the atomic bombs" - in so small part because I find it hard to imagine myself being in Truman's shoes and deciding the matter differently, my beliefs about just-war principle notwithstanding.

The same difficulty obtains where certain forms of torture are concerned. If I find it hard to condemn Harry Truman for incinerating tens of thousands of Japanese civilians, even though I think his decision probably violated the moral framework that should govern the conduct of war, I certainly find it hard to condemn the waterboarding of, say, a Khalid Sheikh Muhammed in the aftermath of an event like 9/11, and with more such attacks presumably in the planning stages. I disagree with Charles Krauthammer, who has called torture in such extreme circumstances a "moral duty"; rather, I would describe it as a kind of immorality that we cannot expect those charged with the public's safety to always and everywhere refrain from. (Perhaps this means, as some have suggested, that we should ban torture, but issue retroactive pardons to an interrogator who crosses the line when confronted with extreme circumstances and high-value targets. But I suspect that this "maybe you'll get retroactive immunity, wink wink" approach probably places too great a burden on the individual interrogator, and that ultimately some kind of mechanism is required whereby the use of extreme measures in extreme circumstances is brought within the law.)

Yet of course the waterboarding of al Qaeda's high command, despite the controversy it's generated, is not in fact the biggest moral problem posed by the Bush Administration's approach to torture and interrogation. The biggest problem is the sheer scope of the physical abuse that was endorsed from on high - the way it was routinized, extended to an ever-larger pool of detainees, and delegated ever-further down the chain of command. Here I'm more comfortable saying straightforwardly that this should never have been allowed - that it should be considered impermissible as well as immoral, and that it should involve disgrace for those responsible, the Cheneys and Rumsfelds as well as the people who actually implemented the techniques that the Vice President's office promoted and the Secretary of Defense signed off on.

But here, too, I have uncertainty, mixed together with guilt, about how strongly to condemn those involved - because in a sense I know that what they were doing was what I wanted to them to do.

Oh, not in every particular: As was often the case with the Bush Administration, I didn't envision many of the stupidities involved (reverse-engineering interrogation from training exercises designed to prepare for ChiCom brainwashing? really?); or the way that the debates over torture would intersect with controversies over executive power, the design of military tribunals, and so forth; or the precise scale and scope that any "torture-lite" program would take on. But I certainly remember how I felt about interrogation in the aftermath of 9/11: I felt that we were all suddenly in a ticking-bomb scenario, that the gloves have to come off, and that all kinds of things needed to be on the table. When Dick Cheney said that we have to work on "the dark side" in the post-9/11 environment, I thought that he was only stating the obvious. When Cofer Black, the CIA man who's depicted, perhaps unfairly, as a blundering fool in Mayer's account, appeared in accounts of Bush's late-2001 cabinet meetings as the guy who said of Al Qaeda, "when we're through with them they will have flies walking across their eyeballs," my instinctive reaction was hell yeah. And when Bowden walked Atlantic readers through the debate over torture-lite, I knew whose side I was on. Read it for yourself:

The word "torture" comes from the Latin verb torquere, "to twist." Webster's New World Dictionary offers the following primary definition: "The inflicting of severe pain to force information and confession, get revenge, etc." Note the adjective "severe," which summons up images of the rack, thumbscrews, gouges, branding irons, burning pits, impaling devices, electric shock, and all the other devilish tools devised by human beings to mutilate and inflict pain on others. All manner of innovative cruelty is still commonplace, particularly in Central and South America, Africa, and the Middle East ...

Then there are methods that, some people argue, fall short of torture. Called "torture lite," these include sleep deprivation, exposure to heat or cold, the use of drugs to cause confusion, rough treatment (slapping, shoving, or shaking), forcing a prisoner to stand for days at a time or to sit in uncomfortable positions, and playing on his fears for himself and his family. Although excruciating for the victim, these tactics generally leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm.

The Geneva Convention makes no distinction: it bans any mistreatment of prisoners. But some nations that are otherwise committed to ending brutality have employed torture lite under what they feel are justifiable circumstances. In 1987 Israel attempted to codify a distinction between torture, which was banned, and "moderate physical pressure," which was permitted in special cases. Indeed, some police officers, soldiers, and intelligence agents who abhor "severe" methods believe that banning all forms of physical pressure would be dangerously naive. Few support the use of physical pressure to extract confessions, especially because victims will often say anything (to the point of falsely incriminating themselves) to put an end to pain. But many veteran interrogators believe that the use of such methods to extract information is justified if it could save lives--whether by forcing an enemy soldier to reveal his army's battlefield positions or forcing terrorists to betray the details of ongoing plots. As these interrogators see it, the well-being of the captive must be weighed against the lives that might be saved by forcing him to talk. A method that produces life-saving information without doing lasting harm to anyone is not just preferable; it appears to be morally sound.

Reading Mayer's book, the recent Senate report, and other sources, it seems clear that this was roughly the logic that motivated much of what was authorized in CIA prisons, in Gitmo, and eventually in a suicide-bomber-raddled Iraq - a logic that convinced figures like Rumsfeld and George Bush that they were stopping short of torture (think of Rumsfeld's dismissive margin comment, as he authorized long-term standing, that he stood for 8-10 hours a day, so why shouldn't prisoners?) even as the the practices they authorized led inexorably to abuse, violence and even death.

Some of the most passionate torture opponents have stated that they never, ever imagined that the Bush Administration would even consider authorizing the sort of interrogation techniques described above, to say nothing of more extreme measures like waterboarding. I was not so innocent, or perhaps I should I say I was more so: If you had listed, in the aftermath of 9/11, most of the things that have been done to prisoners by representatives of the U.S. government, I would have said that of course I expected the Bush Administration to authorize "stress positions," or "slapping, shoving and shaking," or the use of heat and cold to elicit information. After all, there was a war on! I just had no idea - until the pictures came out of Abu Ghraib, and really until I started reading detailed accounts of how detainees were being treated - what these methods could mean in practice, and especially as practiced on a global scale. A term like "stress positions" sounds like one thing when it's sitting, bloodless, on a page; it sounds like something else when somebody dies from it.

Now obviously what I've said with regard to the financial crisis is also true in this arena: With great power comes the responsibility to exercise better judgment than, say, my twenty-three year old, pro-torture-lite self. But with great power comes a lot of pressures as well, starting with great fear: The fear that through inaction you'll be responsible for the deaths of thousands or even millions of the Americans whose lived you were personally charged to protect. This fear ran wild the post-9/11 Bush Administration, with often-appalling consequences, but it wasn't an irrational fear - not then, and now. It doesn't excuse what was done by our government, and in our name, in prisons and detention cells around the world. But anyone who felt the way I felt after 9/11 has to reckon with the fact that what was done in our name was, in some sense, done for us - not with our knowledge, exactly, but arguably with our blessing. I didn't get what I wanted from this administration, but I think you could say with some justification that I got what I asked for. And that awareness undergirds - to return to where I began this rambling post - the mix of anger, uncertainty and guilt that I bring to the current debate over what the Bush Administration has done and failed to do, and how its members should be judged.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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