Thanks to the tireless efforts of Senator Dianne Feinstein, we now have an official record of what, exactly, was done in all our names in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. As President Obama has already admitted, this can be summed up as: "We tortured some folks." We can't pretend it wasn't torture anymore, because the facts weren't swept under a historical rug this time.
What does it all mean? Well, that's a subject that is fiercely being debated right now, both by those who hold human rights dear and by more than a few torture apologists. Even the term "torture apologists" should be a shameful one to use in America, when you stop and think about it.
The report has been out for more than a day now, and I'd like to share my own personal reflections. These are somewhat random and unconnected in nature, I admit, but there are many facets to the fact that America tortured prisoners. In other words, I'm not going to attempt some grand narrative which builds to a solid conclusion, instead I am just going to set down my own reactions to America torturing, Feinstein reporting on it, and the reactions of others to her report. Maybe, given a little more time, I'll come up with a better overview, but for now this'll have to do.
We all bear responsibility for what was done in our name
When members of the American military fight and die, it is done in our name. All Americans' names, in fact. We the people are America, our government merely represents us. What this means is that anything done by our government is our responsibility -- all of us. We try to live up to our ideals, and one of those is accountability and transparency. If extreme measures are taken, they must be answered for later. Those arguing against the Feinstein report's release are essentially saying nobody should take responsibility now, which is just flat-out wrong. We tortured people in our custody. We the people did that. It was approved at the highest levels of government. The facts weren't in question, really. The Feinstein report provided more detail than anything admitted to previously, but the basics were already known.
Dianne Feinstein is not my favorite senator (by a longshot), but I have nothing but praise for her this week. She is a true patriot -- someone who does what is right for her country, whether it is popular or not. For all the "kill the messenger" hysteria, Feinstein investigated what was done and pushed hard to release her findings to the American public for one very specific reason: so that it never happens again. That is a worthy and laudable goal. Because, as I said, we all bear responsibility for what was done, and when we find ourselves in a similar situation in the future, we may react differently. That will be a direct result of Feinstein's report, hopefully.
The report isn't "propaganda" for our enemies -- what we did is
Many in the national security arena are arguing that Feinstein shouldn't have released this report, because it could be used for "propaganda" by our enemies. This is ridiculous, for a number of reasons. The first is the most obvious: the report doesn't give fodder to enemy propaganda, what we did provides that fodder.
This is one of the core arguments against torturing prisoners, in fact. Our enemies can't accurately call us inhuman if we don't do inhuman things. If the C.I.A. had never tortured anyone, then the report would never have existed in the first place. If the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison didn't happen, then the photographs would never have existed either. When America takes the high road morally, then there is nothing to worry about later on, because there will be no moral lapses to hide, leak, investigate, prosecute, or prepare congressional reports on.
Attacking the messenger ignores the fact that what our enemies can use against us in their own propaganda is what we actually did. The solution is quite simple. If you don't want this stuff used in enemy propaganda, then don't do it in the first place. Problem solved.
No outcry yet overseas
To date, there has been no huge outcry overseas. The dark warnings of mobs attacking embassies have not yet materialized. This may still happen, but the fact that there was no immediate reaction does discount such dire warnings a bit already.
There's a likely reason for this: they already knew what was done. Some of the people we tortured have been released already. They know full well what was done to them -- they lived through it. They are not bound by any U.S. national security laws, which means they have likely already described in chilling detail what was done to them. The media outside of America also have no national security restraints, and therefore the stories have already been told -- to audiences outside this country.
Feinstein releasing a report now which gives the American audience details of what was done has not provoked any outrage because it simply is not news to a lot of people overseas. "America Wakes Up To What We Already Knew It Had Done" is not really much of a rallying cry, when you get right down to it.
In wartime, we often quickly jettison our founding values
When "there's a war on," America often tosses our founding values out the window. Examples abound, from just about every war we've fought. Japanese internment camps are usually the first thing referenced, but the list certainly doesn't end there. The Bill of Rights is trampled upon regularly when America goes to war, in fact. Our foundational values and many of the "rules of warfare" are also routinely ignored. War is Hell, and always has been.
A nation at war is a fearful nation. Fear breeds contemplation of actions and policies that in peacetime would never even be proposed. When we were attacked on 9/11, we were more fearful than at any time since Pearl Harbor. But after watching the survivors of Pearl Harbor gather for what may be their last time this week, I couldn't help but contrast the excesses of World War II with the Feinstein report. We did imprison American citizens for no reason other than their ethnicity back then, but they weren't "concentration camps" in the style of our enemies. And there's a reason why "Ve haff vays of makink you talk" is in a German accent in all those movies -- because torturing prisoners was something the Nazis did, not us. We used to take pride in that fact. We cannot anymore. Perhaps in the future, we will regain this ability. Feinstein's report will help.
Cruel and unusual punishment
Of course, the torture apologists are trotting out the "ends justify the means" argument. We tortured people, but it was necessary, and we saved lives as a result -- that's the basic argument they make.
This should be abhorrent to any patriotic American. It is not who we are. Period. If torture is so dang effective, after all, then why not use it domestically? Why not let the cops torture any criminal suspect, to gain a confession? If you torture a confession out of someone, it sure makes the court case a lot easier, right?
Following this logic brings a society quickly to the point where torture becomes the go-to tool for law enforcement for just about any situation. Why kill murderers painlessly with drugs? Why not hold a public spectacle, and slowly torture them to death instead? You could get quite creative in the methods applied to such punishments, in fact. Let's see, we could get four big horses and some stout rope, and....
We have faced such a reality, and such a society before. We did something about it. We wrote the Eighth Amendment, as a direct response. "Cruel and unusual punishment" was forever outlawed (at least theoretically). This is what I mean when I say banning torture is one of America's founding principles.
Is torturing a terrorist's daughter OK?
In one of the first columns I ever wrote for Huffington Post, I posed this very question. It was necessary, because at the time (2006), the torture apologists were using the issue in domestic politics -- Republicans were painting the Democrats as being "soft on terrorism." I posed two questions in this article, to be asked of those championing torture. The first was, if the torture apologist's daughter were a member of the U.S. military and the same techniques we were using were used against her by an enemy, would a torture apologist still stick to the claim that the methods were "not torture" and were in fact legal?
The second question was:
If we hold a terrorist and we think he knows about an imminent plot, you advocate 'aggressive interrogation techniques' against him, since his comfort is less important than saving the lives of so many in an attack on America -- but if he has been trained to resist interrogation and doesn't talk, would you also advocate using the same techniques on his innocent nine-year-old daughter, in front of him, in an effort to make him talk?
I posed this as an unanswerable question. However, much to my own shame, what I was describing was not that far from the reality of what the C.I.A. actually did, according to the Feinstein report. The only differences are that it was a mother instead of a daughter, and it didn't actually happen but was merely threatened.
Yes, we did that. We threatened a prisoner -- if he didn't spill the beans, pronto -- that we would drag his own mother in and torture her in front of him. How anyone can defend this action is beyond me, personally. This should not be who we are as a nation, people. It is indefensible on just about every level. We are better than this, or we should be.
Where are the ministers?
One thing worth pointing out today is the resounding silence coming from America's religious leaders. Now, maybe I'm being too judgmental here, since it has only been one day since the report was released. And perhaps these people are not being sought after by the media for commentary, since their air time is all booked up with torture apologists and historical revisionists.
But when Islamic terrorists cause atrocities, a familiar refrain from some here in America is: "Where are the imams denouncing such violence?" Well, if we're going to hold others to that standard, then where are the Christian ministers and priests denouncing American torture?
Torture, after all, is a moral issue. Many people look to Christian leaders for moral guidance in stressful times. So why are we not hearing from them now? Priests and ministers are often heard splitting hairs on morality when it comes to sexual issues, but torturing a prisoner to death seems equally worthy of their attention. After all, Jesus was tortured -- in fact, his torture device is now the ubiquitous symbol of the religion itself. Which makes their silence now a bit disturbing, to say the least.
Moral relativism among moral absolutists
But I don't mean to pick on the religious leaders too much, at least not to the exclusion of others. For a long time (say, the 1980s and 1990s), one of the rallying cries of the conservative movement and groups like the Moral Majority was to denounce "moral relativism." What they meant by this was making any sort of "ends justify the means" arguments, rather than walking only on the straight and narrow moral path.
Such moral relativists were strongly denounced, on all the social wedge issues of the day. America, we were told, was on the highway to Hell, led down this road by moral relativists who could rationalize or justify just about anything evil. Good was good, and bad was bad -- there was no sliding scale at all.
Many of today's moral absolutists on other issues (birth control, for example) are exactly the same ones now making the pro-torture argument. The hypocrisy is pretty mind-boggling, or at least it would be if anyone in the media bothered to point it out.
Senator John McCain just broke with his party and gave a passionate speech on the Senate floor denouncing torture in all instances. He is to be applauded for doing so. He knows full well what torture is all about -- he was a prisoner of war and he was tortured. He said anything he thought would end the torture. He lied to his captors. He told them what he thought they wanted to hear. And, to his credit, he still remembers that and still has the moral fortitude to stand up and say to the country: Torture does not work.
But he's just about the only one from his political party doing so. All the conservatives who are quick to take an absolutist position on other moral issues are now the same ones arguing strongly that we should all be moral relativists on the subject of torture. Their hypocrisy is breathtaking, in fact. Now all we need is for the media to point it out, and perhaps ask them about this disconnect on the air.
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