The Torture Apologists Who Corrupted America's Youth

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3 in 5 teens believes it's acceptable to abuse captive enemy soldiers - and a long list of Americans shares blame for a generation less enlightened than their elders

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Historically torture has been a tool of legal systems, used to get information needed for a trial or, more directly, to determine guilt or innocence... In other words, torture didn't come into existence to give vent to human sadism. Righteousness, as much as viciousness, produces torture. There aren't squads of sadists beating down the doors to the torture chambers begging for jobs. Rather, as a recent book on torture by Edward Peters says, the institution of torture creates sadists; the weight of a culture, Peters suggests, is necessary to recruit torturers.

You have to convince people that they are working for a great goal in order to get them to overcome their repugnance to the task of causing physical pain to another person. Usually the great goal is the preservation of society, and the victim is presented to the torturer as being in some way out to destroy it. ~ Phylis Rose, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, October 1986

Three-in-five teenagers thinks it's sometimes acceptable for the United States to torture its enemies, according to a study published by The Red Cross. In fact, kids are more likely than their elders to take that position.

Outspoken torture opponent Adam Serwer reacts to the news as follows:

I think Americans are still in the midst of a kind of national post-traumatic stress disorder over the 9/11 attacks, and we really still have yet to come to our senses. Why would young people be any different? Growing up in a world where one of the two major political parties has all but embraced torture as policy must make torture seem, well, normal. Treating it like a crime might have changed that, but no one in the U.S. government has any intention of doing so.

I am inclined to go farther.

The largest share of responsibility for normalizing torture rests with George W. Bush, the man who presided over its officially sanctioned use. In so doing, he reintroduced a grave moral evil into American life, along with Dick Cheney, an advocate of his interrogation policy, and David Addington and John Yoo, the men who flirted with professional misconduct in the course of providing them dubious legal cover. These men, the psychologists who helped them to replicate interrogation techniques used by Communist regimes, and the personnel who openly carried out torture on detainees bear the most direct responsibility for undermining a core civiilzational taboo.

Outrage at the immoral acts of these men, however personally decent or well-meaning they may be, is appropriate. They played a more pernicious part in corrupting America's youth than any gangster rapper or pornographer. But responsibility isn't theirs alone. The members of a single administration cannot transform public attitudes on a matter this important without a cadre of apologists and a larger population that is basically complicit in its silence. So when historians look back on this era, let them assign blame more widely. Every Member of Congress who did nothing to stop these techniques bears some culpability. So do the purveyors of popular culture - most notably the producers of the show 24, though many Hollywood movies are guilty here too - that romanticized torture in a way that misled Americans about its efficacy.

Even most defenders of water-boarding condemned the abuses at Abu Ghraib. But Rush Limbaugh, then as now one of the most influential men in the conservative movement, remarked as follows:

This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?

Marc Thiessen earned a place in this pantheon by trying to persuade his fellow citizens that Catholicism - a religion of "love thy enemy" and "turn the other cheek" - is perfectly compatible with strapping defenseless men to a board, blindfolding them, and repeatedly tricking them into thinking that they're going to drown.

Absurd.

Some torture defenders argued it is a necessary evil. In contrast, Bill Kristol argued that CIA agents who engaged in waterboarding should perhaps receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

The New York Times was also complicit in normalizing torture insofar as it adopted the Orwellian euphemism "enhanced interrogation techniques" to describe practices it had long called torture when they were being committed by foreigners. It shares this distinction with much of the American media.

And Barack Obama, who succeeded a torturing administration, is complicit in normalizing the practice insofar as he instructed his Department of Justice to forgo prosecuting the illegal acts of the previous administration, in violation of treaty obligations endorsed by Ronald Reagan and duly ratified by the United States Senate. Obama is also complicit in the cruel and inhumane punishment of Bradley Manning, an American citizen who hasn't even been convicted of a crime.

Is it any wonder that the kids aren't all right? 

Looking back on The Enlightenment, Voltaire, and his arguments against torture, Desmond Manderson reflected on a dark irony - that its very brutality undermined the stability of the state. "It came to show not the power of the state, but its insecurity," he wrote, "to suggest not the divinity of the sovereign but his partiality; to instill not a kind of passivity and submission in the population but on the contrary to generate activity and resistance. These provocations exploded into life at the end of the eighteenth century, wiping out not just these notorious practices but the regime with which they had become synonymous."

It is to be hoped that the United States reverses its course long before it suffers a similar fate. Thanks to the actions of the Bush Administration, its successors, much of the press, and even citizens who've remained silent in the face of these abuses, reversing course is increasingly unlikely.

If Adam Serwer is right that something like post-traumatic stress syndrome is partially responsible for America's execrable behavior on this matter, perhaps one antidote is the cool, detached analysis of Jim Manzi, who offered his qualified opposition to waterboarding in the pages of National Review, and closed with this stirring passage:

Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage -- not foolhardy and unsustainable "principle at all costs," but reasoned courage -- from its citizens... To demand that the government "keep us safe" by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic.

It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

If only more Americans would issue a similar message to their teens, fewer would find the idea of torturing a fellow human to be acceptable. It is a charge of every civilized generation to guard against this evil.

And we are failing.  

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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