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.

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

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