Exceptional Dissonance

by digby

Both Greenwald and Sullivan take the NY Times to task today for their willingness to call torture torture when it's applied to Americans but not to terrorists suspects. They cite an obituary today of an Air Force pilot who was shot down over China and tortured into making false confessions. It's eerily like the stories we've heard about our own torture regime, and that's no coincidence. It was, after all, modeled on the Chinese techniques of that era. Indeed, much of what is described sounds like the milder of the torture techniques the Bush administration approved for the CIA.

In any case, they both do an excellent job of exposing the hypocrisy of the Times, which still refuses to call the Bush torture regime by its rightful name, and point out the, by now, familiar similarities between what was done to our servicemen in the past and what we did to terrorists suspects in the last few years. Sullivan cites this particularly poignant passage from the Obit:

“He wanted me to admit that I had been ordered to cross the Manchurian border,” Captain Fischer told Life magazine. “I was grilled day and night, over and over, week in and week out, and in the end, to get Chong and his gang off my back, I confessed to both charges. The charges, of course, were ridiculous. I never participated in germ warfare and neither did anyone else. I was never ordered to cross the Yalu. We had strict Air Force orders not to cross the border.”

“I will regret what I did in that cell the rest of my life,” the captain continued. “But let me say this: it was not really me — not Harold E. Fischer Jr. — who signed that paper. It was a mentality reduced to putty.”

As Sullivan points out, Dick Cheney wants us all to believe that they really thought a "mentality reduced to putty" was the best way to obtain actionable intelligence. I sincerely have my doubts about that. There is just too much evidence that everyone knew these techniques would result in false confessions. Occam's Razor says that exactly what Cheney wanted.

But aside from that, whenever I read accounts of these Americans who suffered at the hands of enemies over the years, I can't quite wrap my mind around the fact that the most famous American victim of exactly this sort of horrific torture is none other than the Republican presidential candidate in 2008. How is it that we're not more struck by that amazingly ironic turn of events?

Here's just a little excerpt of his own description of his ordeal:

They wanted a statement saying that I was sorry for the crimes that I had committed against North Vietnamese people and that I was grateful for the treatment that I had received from them. This was the paradox—so many guys were so mistreated to get them to say they were grateful. But this is the Communist way.

I held out for four days. Finally, I reached the lowest point of my 5½ years in North Vietnam. I was at the point of suicide, because I saw that I was reaching the end of my rope.

I said, O.K., I'll write for them.

They took me up into one of the interrogation rooms, and for the next 12 hours we wrote and rewrote. The North Vietnamese interrogator, who was pretty stupid, wrote the final confession, and I signed it. It was in their language, and spoke about black crimes, and other generalities. It was unacceptable to them. But I felt just terrible about it. I kept saying to myself, "Oh, God, I really didn't have any choice." I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.

Then the "gooks" made a very serious mistake, because they let me go back and rest for a couple of weeks. They usually didn't do that with guys when they had them really busted. I think it concerned them that my arm was broken, and they had messed up my leg. I had been reduced to an animal during this period of beating and torture. My arm was so painful I couldn't get up off the floor. With the dysentery, it was a very unpleasant time.

Thank God they let me rest for a couple of weeks. Then they called me up again and wanted something else. I don't remember what it was now—it was some kind of statement. This time I was able to resist. I was able to carry on. They couldn't "bust" me again.

I was finding that prayer helped. It wasn't a question of asking for superhuman strength or for God to strike the North Vietnamese dead. It was asking for moral and physical courage, for guidance and wisdom to do the right thing. I asked for comfort when I was in pain, and sometimes I received relief. I was sustained in many times of trial.

When the pressure was on, you seemed to go one way or the other. Either it was easier for them to break you the next time, or it was harder. In other words, if you are going to make it, you get tougher as time goes by. Part of it is just a transition from our way of life to that way of life. But you get to hate them so bad that it gives you strength.

It goes on in gruesome detail.

Is it not incredibly bizarre that the designated successor to the men who put those very same techniques into practice against terrorists suspects was himself a victim? Is it not even more bizarre that we managed to have a presidential campaign that lasted for what seemed like decades and this was not a more prominent topic of discussion? I can't believe that we are just carrying on as if this whole thing is perfectly reasonable. Apparently we are just supposed to accept that McCain was horribly tortured by evil "gooks" but Abu Zubaydah was given "enhanced interrogation" by the forces of good. Yet what was done was exactly the same.

The moral dissonance on this issue is so extreme that it's no wonder everyone wants it to just go away. If we confront what's really happened then we have to admit that what this country did (is doing?) was no different than the North Vietnamese and the Chinese and the Soviets and the North Koreans. If that truth is ever accepted and the myth of American exceptionalism is finally retired, I'm not sure how the right goes on. Their worldview rests on the notion that America is a shining city on a hill and everyone else are grubby losers toiling in the darkness.

It would be far better for this country to face the fact that we have never been morally superior and so desperately need to work to live up to the standards we set for the world and ourselves. A good first step would be putting and end to this nonsensical fiction that "America Doesn't Torture." We do.