I've Written a Play on Torture

I've written a play on torture, and it's playing at the Public Theater in New York City until May 10th. I'm going to talk about the play a bit; and then the topic of torture, and whether Obama should allow investigations to go forward (answer, yes; surprise surprise).

The play is called Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, and -- hoping you'll forgive the "advertisements for myself" quality of this -- it is a comedy, kind of in the Dr. Strangelove style but with a few more likable characters.

It has a superb cast of seven actors, including Laura Benanti as Felicity, who is dealing with a possibly terrorist husband; and Kristine Nielsen as her cheerful/fuzzy but nervous mother Luella, who avoids life and her dominating right-wing husband by escaping into theater.

(Luella and her husband Leonard are a bit like Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, but worse. Lord, Mr. Scarborough is an Alpha Dog. He's hard to take in the morning. And I give Ms. Brzezinski credit for holding her own very well -- except when her MSNBC partner won't stop talking loudly over her. Still Mika does way better than my Luella.)

Laura (my Felicity) won the Tony Award last year for the title role in the stupendous revival of Gypsy. And of her role in my play, playing a kind of Alice in a red-state-blue-state Wonderland, critic John Simon wrote that her performance "establishes Laura Benanti, already known in musicals ... as an absolute star." And Kristine Nielsen has just been nominated for both an Outer Circle Critics' Award and for a Drama League Award for her funny-but-on-the-emotional-edge Luella. (The play has also been nominated in the play category for those two awards.)

Given its topics, it's surprising the play succeeds as a comedy, and whoever wrote it deserves credit. (I think it's me, but I sometimes disassociate from reality so I can't be quite sure.) The play doesn't get into actual torture until Act II, but it does not end by spiraling down into darkness; I'm proud of the odd, Pirandellian ending, in which Felicity insists on finding some alternative outcomes (which I prefer not to describe here).

I don't like to believe reviews unless they're good (lol, it's a good coping mechanism, no?); this time most of them have been excellent. Here are two: the New York Times review, and the New York Observer review. Here is some general information and some ticket information.

Okay, end of the "advertisements for myself" portion.


In the past couple of weeks we have learned a lot about how the Bush-Cheney administration authorized "enhanced interrogation techniques," which previously were called torture until "Justice" Department lawyers conveniently redefined the term "torture" for them.

What have we learned lately, primarily from the recent declassification of various torture memos and from the very recent Senate Armed Services Committee report on torture?

According to Senator Carl Levin, before the U.S. even had any significant detainees, people high in the administration decided they needed stronger techniques, and they looked to an Army program (SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) that put American soldiers through simulations of torture that were used by Chinese communists to get false confessions. All those poor American soldiers I vaguely recall from my childhood, filmed and on television saying they had had an awakening that America was bad, and they now supported the communists.

The higher-ups (especially Rumsfeld and Cheney, apparently, and those working under them) adopted this plan to deal harshly with detainees -- basically adopting techniques used by the Chinese communists! Wow.

(Here is a post written by Carl Levin that discusses this recent report, which was approved unanimously by the committee, including Republican committee members.)

Now why would techniques that succeed in getting false confessions be of use to the administration? As opposed to the traditional and successful psychological interrogation techniques that have a history of working?

That's quite a big question, and the likely answers aren't good -- either they weren't thinking straight; or they actually wanted some false confessions, especially regarding that ever-elusive-because-it-didn't-exist connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

That's one of the truly despicable acts of Cheney-Bush, trying to convince the American people that our preemptive, unwise invasion of Iraq was somehow connected to our being attacked on 9/11. Oh, and how right-wing radio ran with that one, on and on.

Senator Levin's post above includes mention of that topic above, but here is another article discussing the use of these torture techniques for the purposes of finding a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. And here is some of what is in that article:

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

"There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly -- Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 -- according to a newly released Justice Department document.

"There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees... and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push harder," he continued.

"Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between Bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said.

Wow again. I mean, listening to Cheney and Bush in the run-up to the war and in the aftermath when no WMD were found, certainly one sensed their desire to force a connection between 9/11 and Saddam. I think Cheney still holds that belief or says he does. But then he is delusional and/or evil. In any case, he has been a disaster for this country.

And how about that waterboarding 83 times and 183 times, all in one month? A bit intense, no?

Also, it rather suggests waterboarding doesn't work. Harry Shearer has a good post on the meanings of that tidbit of information, including the frequently cited fact that waterboarding is a "technique, which the United States has prosecuted (as a war crime) both Japanese and American soldiers for using."

And, of course, there's our old friend lawyer John Yoo, proud member of the Federalist Society. And one of the main writers of the shoddy legal opinions, redefining torture away from its original meaning.

His 2002 memo was leaked to the press in 2004; and now it has been declassified too, and so is back in the news. (Some of the memos are signed by his boss Jay Bybee, and some are written by Bybee as well. Here's a good article on Bybee. And he was confirmed as a federal judge, and now many in Congress want to impeach him. And should.)

John Yoo's "legal" opinion was to take a definition of torture that used the phrase "severe pain" and find another legal opinion that was about health care and not about torture, and use this health care definition of severe pain that referred to organ failure and death. And then take that one case (about how health care workers should evaluate a particular medical emergency), and redefined torture to be torture only if it was in danger of causing organ failure or death.

So if horrible things are being done to you, as long as your lungs don't collapse or your heart doesn't explode, then it's not torture. Yippidity doo -- George W. Bush and Dick Cheney can do whatever they want to "protect" us. Cheney, as he apparently said somewhere, could take us to the "Dark Side."

Here's a compelling article on Yoo's shoddy and/or dishonest legal "opinions." I didn't know about the strange use of a medical insurance case definition of "severe pain" to dance on the head of a pin in making it okay to torture. He must be disbarred (and perhaps prosecuted).

Actually, John Yoo is discussed a couple of times in my play, which makes it all seem very current, but I knew about him and his wacky memos from the 2004 leak. My right-wing father in the play and his ladylike cohort Hildegarde both praise Yoo as a brilliant lawyer, and take great comfort in the fact he says as long as an organ doesn't fail then it's not torture. Later when actual torture begins, Hildegarde keeps fainting, and expresses upset they can't just send him off to Syria to be "treated in an enhanced manner." She at least has the common decency to keep fainting. The women faint a lot in my play, especially toward the end.

I'm recapping all this stuff on the news, and I have to stop. I have to take my dog to the vet (he's been ill, but doing much better), and then go to a bus to get to NYC.

And I didn't get to the stuff about how creepy/unfair it is to think back on Rumsfeld and others claiming that the soldiers who abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib were acting on their own, making the behavior up out of their own heads, and were just a few "bad apples."

These memos make clear -- as those on the left always believed -- that the behavior in Abu Ghraib was coming down from the top. It was what was being done at Guantanamo, and experts from there took their enhanced methods with them to Iraq. As the soldiers at Abu Ghraib said at the time, they were told to "soften up" the detainees -- many of whom were picked up at random, or pointed at by some war lord we paid money to -- for the "enhanced interrogations" to come.

I was going to talk at more length of why Obama should let investigations of the Cheney-Bush administration's lawlessness go forward. But I'll do the short version instead.

Obama is right, the American people did not vote him president in order to punish Bush and Cheney. He's right, they do want him to move on, and to focus on our vast array of problems.

But as Obama rather famously said when McCain "suspended" his campaign and suggested postponing or canceling the first debate in order to "solve" the economic crisis (ah, good call, John -- our first clear sign that "maverick" meant hot-headed, impulsive nut)... anyway, Obama said with a calm smile at the time that presidents have to be able to focus on more than one thing at a time.

I know Obama is already focusing on many things at once, but frankly he can and must add another one -- these investigations.

Plus he's appointed an apparently good Attorney General in Eric Holder, and he should let the Justice Department do what it's meant to do -- ensure that our laws are followed properly, and seek prosecution if those laws have been broken.

I think if Holder goes forward as I hope he will, that Obama should indeed stay in the background, and keep focusing on the other important issues.

And I don't know the status of getting an independent counselor -- due to Kenneth Starr's over-the-top investigation into the heinous crime of oral sex, the independent counsel statute was not renewed. Which seemed like a good idea at the time, but now...? But it would be good to have an independent counsel seeking out facts, rather than having the Justice Department be in total charge. Well that's a longer question.

But Obama must let this go forward. I mean, the common phrase that "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it" is over-familiar but still true, no? We need to know what happened. We really do.

Note: I am on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" today at 3:40 p.m., EST. To talk about my play and torture. Oddly nervous. Should I get drunk first? Just kidding.