Friday, April 24, 2009
The Triumph of the Torture State
He was tortured, too: Our Lord was "scourged," which means that He was turned over to the ministrations of professional torturers, before being sent to the cross. And of course, crucifixion itself was a method of state execution through torture.
Jailer: Do you believe in anything?
Prisoner: I believe in Allah.
Jailer: But I believe in torture, and I will torture you. --
An exchange between an Iraqi detainee and his American captor in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.
During a call-in radio program broadcast in Moscow in the mid-1980s, the host -- a Communist hack who displayed nearly Hannityesque servility toward his party masters -- got tangled in his talking points.
At one point in his peroration, the Party mouthpiece insisted that the decadent West "stands on the brink of collapse"; shortly thereafter, he pronounced the glad tidings that the Soviet Bloc "is about to overtake the West!"
A few minutes later, a listener called in to pose an earnest but puzzled question. "Comrade, you said that the West is on the brink of collapse, and you also said we're about to overtake them," the caller observed. "But doesn't that mean...?" The question trailed off into an awkward silence as the host suddenly understood that the term of his accidental syllogism would be that the Soviet Bloc would collapse before the decadent West.
Over the past two weeks, the leading voices of Republican conservatism have caught themselves in the coils of a similar snare.
A fortnight or so ago, GOP-aligned pundits and activists let loose a protracted communal howl of outrage prompted by disclosure of a Department of Homeland Security assessment identifying "rightwing extremism" as a potential breeding ground for domestic terrorism. Much of the indignation was purely theatrical, of course with folks like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson preening as supposed victims of official persecution.
Immediately after laying claim to the status of innocently accused terrorist suspects, the same retinue of Republican hacks -- without breaking stride, mind you -- redirected their energy into the defense of torture as a means of interrogating terrorist suspects.
The time-frame in which this turnaround took place shouldn't have over-taxed the attention span of the typical talk radio addict, and the implicit logic of these positions should have been obvious even to people habituated to reflexive sloganeering, rather than ratiocination.
Yet there it is: In defending the atrocities committed by the Bush administration, the Republican-centered conservative movement effectively endorsed the proposition that it is entirely proper for the government to torture terrorist suspects -- including, presumably, "rightwing extremists" deemed a domestic terror threat by the incumbent government.
This irony is reinforced by the fact that the Bush/Cheney wing of the conservative movement champions the use of torture techniques that were devised by Soviet and Chinese Communists for use against American military personnel, as well as one particular method -- controlled drowning, also known as "waterboarding" -- that was favored by Cambodia's hyper-murderous Khmer Rouge.
It didn't work then, either: Waterboarding as carried out by U.S. and allied troops in Vietnam.
Twenty years ago, as the Soviet Empire began to implode, many people -- myself among them -- objected to the fact that the term "conservative" was routinely used in the media to describe the most doctrinaire elements of the Communist Party.
The remnants of the Republican-centered conservative movement appear determined to vindicate that useage as they rally in defense of the Leninist principle of unfettered state power vested in an executive oligarchy, and the practice of torture as the defining privilege of that ruling elite.
One of the brightest luminaries in the conservative blogosphere insists that any effort to prosecute Bush administration officials for ordering and carrying out torture is nothing less than an effort "to criminalize what are essentially policy differences."
Ah, yes, of course: When crimes are committed by governments, they are magically transformed into "policy." So when a Republican administration institutionalizes the use of torture techniques that were prosecuted as war crimes following WWII, we're to believe that those crimes were sanitized through the redemptive power of the executive branch.
Some of the more sophisticated members of the GOP's PR apparat -- for instance, attorneys David Rivkin and Lee Casey, who served in the first Bush administration and defended every expansion of presidential power under Bush II -- took a Baghdad Bob approach (that is, brazen, defiant denial of the obvious) in dealing with recently disclosed memoranda and other documents relating to the Bush administration's torture program.
Following the document dump, Rivkin and Casey blandly insisted that "The Memos Prove We Didn't Torture" because, inter alia, the illegal "enhanced interrogation" methods used by the CIA weren't carried out to the uttermost extremes permitted by "policy." (This reminds me of Cicero's ironic observation in one of his Philippics that the tyrant Antony occasionally refrained from murdering people, then demanded honor as a humanitarian for sparing their lives.)
Besides, Rivkin and Casey continue, the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques (which is exactly the same phrase, translated from the German, that the Nazis used to describe exactly the same methods) saved us from a post-911 "second wave" of terrorist attacks.
For example, the repeated waterboarding of al-Qaeda thug Khalid Sheik Mohammed supposedly helped abort a plot involving "the crashing of another airplane into a building in Los Angeles." The inclusion of that detail demonstrates the patent dishonesty of Rivlin and Casey's argument (an old Bush White House soundbite that was also regurgitated by former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen), since Mohammed wasn't captured until more than a year after the supposed plot to bomb L.A. was foiled.
It is now clear to the point of being irrefutable that the origins of the Bush administration's torture program had nothing to do with protecting the United States from al-Qaeda terrorist plots. Instead, the objective was to compel detainees to provide "confirmation" of a supposed operational connection between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda, thereby forging (in the sense of "fabricating") a link to 9-11 that would offer a pretext for the war Bush and his handlers plotted even before they were settled in at the White House.
How the Khmer Rouge did it: Waterboarding as practiced by the murderous Cambodian Communists.
This is an entirely appropriate -- which is to say, Soviet-inspired -- use of torture. As a method of extracting reliable intelligence, torture is notoriously ineffective and counter-productive. But it is a splendidly effective way to extort false confessions from victims.
As employed under Stalin, the Soviet methods that inspired Bush's torture program were intended to ratify the policy decisions of the ruling elite, not to acquire objective intelligence that might contradict the designs of the Dear Leader and his comrades.
Vladimir Bukovsky, the heroic former Soviet dissident who was sentenced to the psychiatric gulag in the mid-1960s, warned in 2005 that institutionalizing torture would corrupt and ultimately ruin whatever law enforcement or intelligence body carried it out. It would cultivate an entire population of professional torturers, individuals whose work requires them to emancipate the worst elements of human nature for use against the helpless.
Not mentioned by Bukovsky, but becoming apparent now, is the damage that a program of torture can do to principled people who refuse to carry it out.
The suicide of Army Spec. Alyssa Peterson, which I described nearly three years ago and is receiving renewed attention now, was her desperate, despairing reaction to orders that she participate in the torture of detainees in Iraq. The Pentagon reacted to her death by carrying out the now-expected cover-up, which included destroying all of the critical records of the "interrogations" she refused to participate in.
Like others in the employ of governments throughout history who rebelled at carrying out the order to torture other human beings, Spec. Peterson was able to recognize that even the enemy is made in the image of God. Torture is the repudiation of this idea of shared humanity; it treats the victim as something to be molded, through pain and terror, into a shape more compatible with the State's designs. But that process inevitably re-shapes those who carry out the torture as well.
The torture regime created under Bush and Cheney implicated the political leadership in both branches of the Ruling Party. Its infection has deeply penetrated the tissue of the Homeland Security system. It has created what could become a self-sustaining corps of professional torturers whose depraved talents will not be employed only against foreigners, but will very quickly become "policy" in dealing with certain troublesome elements among the citizenry as well. That corps, incidentally, includes a large number of medical professionals who -- in a collectivist perversion of their Hippocratic obligations, collaborated in the torture of detainees -- including, God forgive us, children who were seized in order to gain blackmail leverage over a parent.
In a profoundly sobering essay published by Foreign Policy, former Bush administration National Security Council member Philip Zelikow points out that there simply is no legal firewall protecting U.S. citizens from the torture methods used against foreign terrorist suspects.
Referring to the series of legal memoranda issued by Jay Bybee, John Yoo, and others in the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel, Zelikow observes: "Once you get to a substantive compliance analysis for `cruel, inhuman, and degrading' you get the position that the substantive standard is analogous to U.S. constitutional law. So the OLC must argue, in effect, that the methods and conditions of confinement in the CIA program could constitutionally be inflicted on American citizens in a county jail."
"In other words," he concludes, under the official assumptions embedded during the Bush administration, "Americans in any town could constitutionally be hung from the ceiling naked, sleep deprived, water-boarded, and all the rest -- if the alleged national security justification was compelling."
During the Cold War, there was never any realistic prospect that the Red Army would conquer the United States. In much the same fashion, it is entirely inconceivable that Sharia law will be imposed on Americans any time in the foreseeable future.
But owing to the triumph of totalitarian "conservatism" during the Bush era, it's all but inevitable that, in the near future, innocent Americans who fall into the hands of their own government will be subject to Soviet-style "enhanced interrogation" techniques. It turns out that the United States did indeed "overtake" the Soviets after all.
Obiter dicta --
For those who are interested, I've been regularly submitting items over at Lew Rockwell's blog. Please check out the Liberty Minute archive, as well.
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Dum spiro, pugno!