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Thinking About Torture Ahead of the Senate Report

2010 Anti-Torture Vigil - Week 3 by Justin Norman on FlickrThe highly-redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report on post-9/11 torture is being released as you read this. It will likely contain few details on what actually happened by America’s hand. But details or not, at the most fundamental level the report does not matter. America will sidestep the most important lessons that could have emerged: we have left the door open to torture, and torture will ultimately harm the nation more profoundly than any terrorist could.

Information already in circulation makes clear the report will reveal America’s regime was more horrific than what we already know and that torture did not generate any of the life-saving intelligence it was designed and tolerated to do.

There will be articles and talk shows pulling out every grotesque detail, played as horror porn, a real-life Saw. There will be think pieces reflecting on the terribleness of war, likely quoting some scraps of ancient text (save us from more Wikipedian Herodotus and Thucydides.) A main theme will be that while wrong and repugnant, one must view torture through the lens of those post-9/11 days when our very America was at grave risk. Torture is always unpleasant but sometimes necessary, people will say.

President Obama already staked out this position on behalf of the nation way back on August 1, saying “I understand why [torture] happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”

The reality is, and was, different. The torture programs continued for years after 9/11, with most officially concluding (we are lead to believe) only after Obama took office in January 2009. Despite the fear-mongering, standard intelligence tools (including, we now know, blanket NSA surveillance) painted a clearer and clearer picture that there were no more imminent attacks coming. As for the “tough job” the “folks” responsible for the torture had, it is unclear that that job was any tougher than in other times of challenge for America– during the Civil War when the nation was truly at risk, after Pearl Harbor, during tense moments of the Cold War– when fear did not congeal into torture.

No, no the idea that torture, as well as the other post-9/11 violations of acceptable human behavior such as renditions, indefinite detention without trial and the dilution of civil rights, held by American citizens for over two hundred years, can in any way be justified by their circumstances is simply wrong.

The purposeful harming of prisoners has never in human history been considered acceptable or justified, except by the torturers themselves perhaps. Does the U.S. wish to stand in history among the Inquisition, Genghis Khan and the Stasi, all of whom felt torture was justified? Torture has otherwise been broadly held evil when done by frightened soldiers in the heat of battle, and it has been held evil when sanctioned by governments. It has been outlawed by international conventions and agreements.

No U.S. president would find it acceptable if done to fellow citizens. Obama should be ashamed of himself for suggesting anything different about America’s own actions. He displays a lack of courage to confront his own national security apparatus by in any way leaving open the door that what was done was something he could “understand.” The horror was excusable once, and thus can be again. Pandora’s box has been left open.

The second expected theme of the Senate report, that torture failed to produce results, bares similar shame.

Leaving aside how unlikely a true 24 “ticking time bomb” scenario really is (no torture was needed after the Boston Marathon bombing when there might actually have been a ticking bomb), it does not matter whether torture produced “results.” If somehow one could cite an example of some useful intelligence, would that justify all that was done? Would it at that point be simply a math problem — if torture saved two lives it was still bad, but if it saved 54, or a 106, or 3,013, then it was justified and thus needed to be kept in America’s global toolbox for the “next time?”

What matters more is that the long-term result of choosing expediency over morality has always resulted in great harm to a nation. Now, look to Thucydides, the ancient historian — the abandonment by Athens those centuries ago of its core principles in the destruction of innocents lead to the destruction of Athenian democracy. The lessons of history matter, especially for the first democracy founded since Athens.

America, as national policy, tortured human beings. It did so out of fear, out of revenge, because it wanted to lash out and it could. Unless the president will step back from complicity on behalf of our nation and admit torture was simply wrong, and risked greater long-term harm to America than a terrorist could inflict, well ahead of the Senate report’s release we already know it doesn’t matter.


Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from Amazon

Creative Commons photo via Justin Norman on Flickr

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.