April 23, 2009

Our Tortured Soul

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So, we’re a nation that tortures.

Doesn’t feel particularly good to think about in the abstract, let alone face as a reality. But, that’s what the United States has done, torture. We’ve probably done it for a long while.

Writing this blog, I saw two options as to how to handle the issue. I could just talk about how we justified torture in several ways, ranging from the “greater good” argument to avoiding the issue on technicalities (e.g. waterboarding is an “interrogation method” not torture)and how John Yoo seems like an abhorrent human being that can shut his conscience off with disturbing ease.

But, the consequences of the acts of torture and the torture memos seem a more pressing issue.

Since Obama released the torture memos from the Bush Administration–a decision he reportedly agonized over for weeks, being torn between Attorney General Eric Holder(who advocated their release) and CIA Director Leon Panetta (who opposed it)–there has been a curious reaction. Many pundits seem to be grieving over Obama’s decision, moaning that the torture memos public release shames the country, makes us more vulnerable to attack, and invalidates the torture methods as a means of getting information. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan even said we should just walk on without really facing the issue. See for yourself:

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That would be the easy and comfortable thing to do. We could have implied that we repeatedly subjected people to near-drownings, put it in the past and move on, like it was some one-night stand that we’re not proud about.

But, the United States, and the preconception of “Western Civilization”, hinges on the ideals of a just and civil society. A tenet of such a society–what is ostensibly suppoed to seperate us from more barbaric people–is that we do not inflict needless harm…that includes torture.

Torturing people, physically and mentally tormenting them till they were mere shells of their former selves, is a barbaric act of evil.

Can you imagine what its like to drown? The crushing force of water all around you, your head impossibly weighed down. Your lungs scream for air, your nerve synapses fire in a panic to the adrenal glands and release a painful adrenaline rush, brutally increasing your heart rate. All you can think about is that you’re dying; you’re dying, slowly, painfully and you’re all too aware of it.

Now have it happen 183 times in a month. Nearly die six times a day.

I can’t help but feel a deep sense of disgust that all these people are ashamed, not at the acts, but at the fact that we’ve been found out.

For years America’s had a moral strength, an integrity as a country that engendered good will among others. It began around World War I, grew to epic proportions in World War II, and somehow survived the fires of Vietnam. We did some terrible terrible stuff in Vietnam–the My Lai massacre, for instance–and yet, by and large, our reputation has endured. Land of the brave, home of the free. Maybe despite the abhorrence of act upon act, things always seemed removed and impersonal. Carpet bombing is so extreme, so powerful, that its only comprehensible in the abstract.

That moral strength, that idealistic view of the U.S., has been falling apart for decades, bit by bit, as the U.S. willfully interfered with the governance of other countries, like Nicaragua in the 1980s.

These acts of torture seem like the final nail in the coffin. We’ve lost our innocence, as it were. There is something so personally brutal about torture that one cannot view it with detached skepticism. The tortured will be haunted forever, the torturers likely will be as well.

So what happens now?

Some want to just move on. It’s out in the open now, a weight is off our shoulders…we begin again.

Well, not yet.

We’ve admitted our sins, but now we’ve got to atone for them. And to atone, we need to punish the actors and the enablers of the torture. Obama has tried to sidestep this, promising most at the CIA that they won’t face prosecution for the torture, but there’s such a furor, a demand for punishment, that it is looking more likely that prosecution will happen.

The country has, in the past, prosecuted others for waterboarding in the war crimes trials that followed World War II. So, by our own standards, there are war criminals in the country. Some who actively encouraged waterboarding, fully aware of how violent an act it is, others who didn’t know about it. As the New York Times notes, top level cabinet officials were ignorant of the internal memos that acknowledged that waterboarding was not only torture, but ineffective in securing valid confessions.

As the Times quoted: “The process was ‘a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm,’ a former C.I.A. official said.”

There should be a punishment, for the willingness of some to torture a human being and the silent complicity of others. Most of all, though, there should be a punishment for the ignorance of so many on the issue. We, all of us, should have known better.

That’s my take on it. Read the memos for yourself, and see what you think.