Is Torture an American Value?

In this photo reviewed by the U.S. military, the sun rises above Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, Wednesday, No
In this photo reviewed by the U.S. military, the sun rises above Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. During nearly 12 years of legal disputes and political battles, the United States has put off deciding the fate of al-Qaida and Taliban militants held at Guantanamo Bay, captured after the Sept. 11 attacks but denied quick or full access to the American justice system. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The most recent chapter in America's sordid history with torture, the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture during the Bush administration, reinforces what human rights organizations and frankly many people around the world already know about the U.S. government. Ours is a government that views torture as an acceptable way to terrorize those deemed as enemies (real or imagined) of the American empire. In this day and age, these "enemies" are mostly Muslims and Arabs, but victims of American regimes of torture are not limited to these groups.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the committee, has fought with the CIA, the White House, and other prominent politicians since April 2014 over the release of the report. The resistance she encountered is predictable given the ugliness of what lies within. The report details some of the harsh methods, referred to by the CIA as "enhanced interrogation techniques," used on detainees and prisoners to uncover information about the 9/11 attacks and potential future attacks. The methods include waterboarding, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, forced rectal feeding, and ice water "baths." The report also alleges that the CIA misled high-level government officials on some of the methods being used and on the value of the information extracted from torture.

The debate over whether the CIA did or did not mislead the Bush administration is a red herring. The real issue is the persistent recourse to torture that the U.S. has relied on in its modern history. And while President Obama should be praised for banning torture in a 2009 executive order, his statements on CIA torture have been equivocal at best. This past summer, he admitted that the U.S. had tortured some folks in the war on terror, adding that "we did some things that were contrary to our values." But the thrust of his comments focused on the difficult job that CIA officials and interrogators had after 9/11. He warned the public not to be "too sanctimonious" toward those who participated in torture given the stress they were under.

Even Obama's seemingly strong statement that CIA torture during the Bush administration violated America's values deserves closer scrutiny. The torture that took place after 9/11 was not a momentary lapse of moral judgment by a rogue intelligence agency during a brief period of duress. To accept such an assertion is to ignore just how "natural" and acceptable torture has been for the U.S. for quite some time.

The U.S.'s intimate relationship with torture goes back decades. In the 1970s, the CIA helped trained autocratic regimes in torture techniques, from Jorge Videla's Argentina to the Shah's Iran. For a time, torture was part of the curriculum of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, an institute in Georgia that trained high-ranking military soldiers and quite a few infamous dictators in Latin America. In the war on terror, the U.S. government authorized extraordinary renditions that resulted in the transfer of terrorist suspects from U.S. custody to countries where they faced torture, such as Egypt, or to "black sites" and secret prisons run by the CIA in Europe where they also were subjected to torture.

It is telling that in light of this history of torture, and in the lead-up to the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report, President Bush did not flinch in heaping praise on the CIA, defending agents who participated in torture as "patriots." In other words, torturing prisoners and detainees is tantamount to patriotism if it's done in defense of the nation. This means that torture is not antithetical to American values but reflective of them. And that is a sobering truth that all Americans must come to terms with in light of this report.

Predictions that the report's publication will incite violence overseas are probably correct. If this happens, however, we must recognize that it is in part because the U.S. reaps what it sows. If the U.S. is serious about preventing needless anti-American violence abroad, whether in the immediate and distant future, it must reexamine its core values. But the U.S. cannot and will not be able to do this kind of soul-searching, nor will it be able to make a substantive and enduring contribution to peace and human rights, as long as torture remains a part of its imperial arsenal.