Debating The False Economy Of Torture Once Again

In 2008, Christopher Hitchens decided to get waterboarded, as a journalistic stunt, so he could speak about whether it was torture. The fact that slow drowning had to be experienced to be confirmed, shows the deficit of moral imagination and character on the part of people such as Hitchens, especially regarding the actions of the USA in the Terror Wars. Hitchens cracked quickly under torture he admits, and nevertheless assured his readers that even if the CIA was torturing people, Qaeda was doing much worse. By 2008, most Americans found that an unconvincing argument.
As the New York Times, and other media outlets are discussing this week, the issue of the rightness and utility of torture as a means of intelligence gathering, is once again being debated, in reaction to a new film, Zero Dark Thirty.

This film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the Best Picture Oscar winner in 2009, The Hurt Locker, reportedly deals quite realistically and harrowingly with the use of torture by American intelligence services in the years-long leadup to the black-op assassination of Osama bin Laden. Of course, getting Bin Laden is something most Americans figure was a good thing, and some kind of justice. If some rules got bent to get that outcome, should we care? 

That idea that we shouldn’t care assumes a couple of questionable things: that getting Bin Laden was worth any abandonment or compromise of our ideals as a nation, and that torture helped us get Bin Laden.

The “does it work, or doesn’t it?” debate was never the pertinent question regarding the CIA’s use of methods of torture, including waterboarding (slow drowning) of victims.

Is torture wrong, morally, was the only question that ever mattered. Prior to 9/11, that question had been answered affirmatively—yes it’s wrong—by the civilized portion of the world.

The assumed rightness of the American Wars on Terror, and all the things that have been perpetrated by the West in fighting them, was based on the premise that the USA, being the primary victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, occupied the superior moral ground compared to the terrorists. How can we know this? A big reason it was supposed to be true, and a big reason a lot of the world bought that premise (for a while), was because it was assumed that the USA would never conduct itself as the terrorists did.

Of course, we have long ago learned that isn’t true.

Indeed, anyone paying attention to the history of the USA, would have known that going into the Terror Wars. Only persons with extraordinarily short and twisted memories—or no memories at all—would think such a thing. Certainly 9/11 was a terrible, barbaric act. But it wasn’t an act committed in a geo-political vacuum, where al-Qaeda were the only barbarians.

Instead of taking advantage of the real opportunity the sympathy of the world, on 9/12/2001, afforded the United States, the George W. Bush regime decided that the real room to maneuver because of this was in giving a great deal of leeway to the military and intelligence arms of the US government in interpreting domestic and international rules of conduct in the treatment of enemies, or people merely suspected of being enemies. And that led, quickly, to the idea that torture was OK.

The argument in support of torturing suspects has always gone like this: if you can get information that saves even one life by torturing somebody, what’s the problem? Realizing that a lot of people might actually have a problem about that equation, the pro-torturers have increased the number of theoretically saved people to—oh you know some really big number of people who owe their lives to information gathered from the list of the tortured.

At least, that’s how Dick Cheney views the world.

And no doubt the monsters who ran the Spanish Inquisition would agree wholeheatedly with his rationale.

But, if saving worthy lives justifies crushing and extermining what the USA came to judge as unworthy lives—eventually these would become hundreds of thousands of victims in the Terror War Crimes of America—why don’t we just establish torture as the de jure policy of the nation? What’s the problem if a greater good can be accomplished? And what has ever been the problem all along?

Well, one problem is that torture was always considered one of those barbaric, “cruel and unsual” punishments, that are specifically outlawed in the USA by the 8th Amendment. This is one reason the Bush regime worked so hard to find a way of interpreting the law and the tradition of the United States that would nevertheless enable them to torture people anyway.

They tried everything, from declaring torture wasn’t torture, to saying Constitutional protections didn’t apply to non-Americans, to saying that since the USA wasn’t actually punishing people when it used torture to obtain intelligence, but was only using an “enhanced interrogation technique” on suspects or detainees, the Constitution didn’t apply in those cases.

The purely cynical (indeed you might call it bold) reading of the American people by Bush and his henchpeople, was that Bush knew the American people were generally so ignorant about their own freedoms and what they meant, that they wouldn’t stand up to demand the rights of a bunch of suspected terrorists be respected. For a long time this was an accurate assessment on Bush's part. 

But, as with Mitt Romney’s reckless rich-boy mouth concerning his hatred of poor people, Bush and Cheney’s criminal gangs just couldn’t keep from tearing apart the envelope and barriers to barbaric behavior with one terrible crime against humanity after another. Along the way, the American people’s confusion about the cost to their freedom of Bush’s wars, got cleared up, and overwhelmingly people came down on the side of viewing torture as unAmerican—pretty much the same view they currently have of George W. Bush and his whole crew.

So, let us get over the misleading arguments about whether torture works. Of course it works. But the primary work it performs is to rip apart the integrity and the global image of the Unites States as any standard-bearer for the protection of human rights. When Osama bin Laden came to play that day, the United States did a big part of the work for the Qaeda guys, by choosing to get down into the mud with the terrorists and do the barbarian thing.

As one could rightly point out, the USA’s rapid and all-too-comfortable adoption and perpetration of torture after 9/11 suggests the soul of the nation had already changed radically from where it was in 1945, back when the notion of a torture regime run by the US government, would have disgusted the American people.

As the Bush thugs said, that was a “quaint” attitude, that had no utility in the post-decency era of the USA.