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Hullabaloo


Monday, December 08, 2014

 
The torture genie 

by digby

There's a lot of talk about the torture report this morning with Republicans and some hawkish Democrats getting to the point of near hysteria trying to convince everyone that the revelation of the truth is the real crime rather than the torture itself. They simultaneously assert that torture was not torture, that torture was effective, that we have done nothing immoral but that the revelation of our entirely effective, fully moral non-torture will cause the rest of the world to think less of us and the middle east to explode with hatred.

They also seem to think that ISIS doesn't know anything about it and will suddenly be given a great propaganda tool to use against the US.

I have news for them:
At least four hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State, including an American journalist who was recently executed by the group, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity, according to people familiar with the treatment of the kidnapped Westerners.

James Foley was among the four who were waterboarded several times by Islamic State militants who appeared to model the technique on the CIA’s use of waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
They already know about it. Obviously. They may be barbaric but they have access to all the same information the rest of us do.

This episode has made us more stupid and cruel as a society. I wrote about that  way back in 2005:

Genie In A Bottle

Nobody is going to ask me who should be hired at The New York Times to replace Judith Miller, but if they did I would say that they should hire the best and most unsung national security reporter in the country --- Jason Vest. If you are unfamiliar with his work, do yourself a favor and have Mr Google look him up. He's a real reporter, not a stenographer, but he also has an impressive interest and grasp of the history of various groups, cabals and individuals who make up the current national security establishment and the Bush administration. And lo and behold, he actually writes about them. This is a huge key to understanding these otherwise inexplicable people and their motives. I highly recommend that you read his pieces wherever they come up and I will continue to bring them to your attention. 

Today, he has written a piece on torture for the National Journal that is fascinating because he's spoken to old guard CIA who have had some experience with this stuff in the past. They all agree that the moral dimension is huge, but there are good practical reasons for not doing it as well. These range from the difficulty in getting allies to cooperate because of their distaste for such methods to the fact that the information is unreliable. 

But the thing I found most interesting is the observation that it does something quite horrible to the perpetrators as well as the victims:

"If you talk to people who have been tortured, that gives you a pretty good idea not only as to what it does to them, but what it does to the people who do it," he said. "One of my main objections to torture is what it does to the guys who actually inflict the torture. It does bad things. I have talked to a bunch of people who had been tortured who, when they talked to me, would tell me things they had not told their torturers, and I would ask, 'Why didn't you tell that to the guys who were torturing you?' They said that their torturers got so involved that they didn't even bother to ask questions." Ultimately, he said -- echoing Gerber's comments -- "torture becomes an end unto itself."

[...]

According to a 30-year CIA veteran currently working for the agency on contract, there is, in fact, some precedent showing that the "gloves-off" approach works -- but it was hotly debated at the time by those who knew about it, and shouldn't be emulated today. "I have been privy to some of what's going on now, but when I saw the Post story, I said to myself, 'The agency deserves every bad thing that's going to happen to it if it is doing this again,'" he said. "In the early 1980s, we did something like this in Lebanon -- technically, the facilities were run by our Christian Maronite allies, but they were really ours, and we had personnel doing the interrogations," he said. "I don't know how much violence was used -- it was really more putting people in underground rooms with a bare bulb for a long time, and for a certain kind of privileged person not used to that, that and some slapping around can be effective.

"But here's the important thing: When orders were given for that operation to stand down, some of the people involved wouldn't [emphasis mine --ed]. Disciplinary action was taken, but it brought us back to an argument in the agency that's never been settled, one that crops up and goes away -- do you fight the enemy in the gutter, the same way, or maintain some kind of moral high ground?



To some extent civilization is nothing more than leashing the beast within. When you go to the dark side, no matter what the motives, you run a terrible risk of destroying yourself in the process. I worry about the men and women who are engaging in this torture regime. This is dangerous to their psyches. But this is true on a larger sociological scale as well. For many, many moons, torture has been a simple taboo --- you didn't question its immorality any more than you would question the immorality of pedophilia. You know that it's wrong on a visceral, gut level. Now we are debating it as if there really is a question as to whether it's immoral --- and, more shockingly, whether it's a positive good. Our country is now openly discussing the efficacy of torture as a method for extracting information. 

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" he couldn't ever have dreamed that we would in a few short decades be at a place where torture is no longer considered a taboo. It certainly makes all of his concerns about changes to the nuclear family (and oral sex) seem trivial by comparison. We are now a society that on some official levels has decided that torture is no longer a deviant, unspeakable behavior, but rather a useful tool. It's not hidden. People publicly discuss whether torture is really torture if it features less than "pain equavalent to organ failure." People no longer instinctively recoil at the word --- it has become a launching pad for vigorous debate about whether people are deserving of certain universal human rights. It spirals down from there. 

When the smoke finally clears, and we can see past that dramatic day on 9/11 and put the threat of islamic fundamentalism into its proper perspective, I wonder if we'll be able to go back to our old ethical framework? I'm not so sure we will even want to. It's not that it changed us so much as it revealed us, I think. A society that can so easily discard it's legal and ethical taboos against cruelty and barbarism, is an unstable society to begin with. 

At this rather late stage in life, I'm realizing that the solid America I thought I knew may never have existed. Running very close, under the surface, was a frightened, somewhat hysterical culture that could lose its civilized moorings all at once. I had naively thought that there were some things that Americans would find unthinkable --- torture was one of them. 

The old Lebanon hand that Vest quotes above concludes by saying this:

I think as late as a decade ago, there were enough of us around who had enough experience to constitute the majority view, which was that this was simply not the way we did business, and for good reasons of practicality or morality. It's not just about what it does or doesn't do, but about who, and where, we as a country want to be."
Now that we've let the torture genie out of the bottle, I wonder if we can put that beast back in. He looks and sounds an awful lot like an American.