Twisting Honor, Twisting Human Rights: America and Torture

Originally posted on April 22, 2014 at:

There was a time when the American public demanded something like consequences for leadership failures that transgressed ethical and moral lines. The Watergate scandal brought down the Nixon presidency, but the sense in the country was that it was an indictment of failed policies ranging from Kissinger's brutal wars in Southeast Asia to the roughshod trampling of public opinion that was really what brought him down. In the Reagan era, there was a massive loss of confidence in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra Scandal and there were extensive and publicly televised hearings on this issue. Now? Now the Bush presidency involved running riot over international agreements and the very foundations of the United States and virtually nothing happened. Could things be worse? Yes. The Obama presidency has seen these policies continued or extended with both implicit and explicit statements that there would not be any pursuit of justice against those who offended it so deeply.

It is not enough to note that the Obama administration has continued many policiesthat were initiated under his predecessor, George W. Bush. It is not enough to note with horror the response given by then Press Secretary Robert Gibbs as he tartly dismisses a reporter's concerns of the extrajudicial and extraterritorial murder of an American citizen and a minor (though given Gibbs' rather crass post-White House business acumen, maybe he'll re-spin this too in the future). Let us not get caught up in the problems of indefinite detentions without charge in Guantanamo. Let us not worry ourselves overly much with the problems of drone attacks and the ethics of videogame pilots in air-conditioned trailers outside of Las Vegas unleashing the full might of the American military against wedding parties on the other side of the globe. Let us rather focus on what may be the most shameful problem of all: torture.

The word torture comes from the Latin torquere, meaning "to twist." It is a word that is shorthand for acts and behaviors beyond the moral limits of acceptability. It has been treated as such since the founding of the United States with the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, itself derived from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. The history of agreeing that certain punishments and treatments were such an affront to humankind that they should not be permitted ever has been one of not only declaiming treatments and punishments carried out by other state or nonstate actors, but of restricting and monitoring the powers and behaviors of our very own country. Currently, the Congress and presidency have decided to just stop caring about being monitored or restricted.

When Senator Dianne Feinstein broke from the ranks and decried the use of torture by the United States, the reaction against her was fast, furious, and, with sad predictability, featured gendered ad hominem attacks. The CIA will not go gently into greater oversight and accountability within the government, as no secret agency ever has. But Senator Feinstein's statement was harrowing, brave, clear, and essential. The revelations of the partial release of the Senate report on torture are harrowing, but a full release of the information and subsequent accountability are absolutely essential. Stand against torture. Stand with Feinstein. There are many in the Senate and outside who already support the need to make the report public, but your voice is needed to stand with them to make it happen.

As we watch Easter, a holiday celebrating redemption, and Passover, a holiday celebrating liberation, recede into the past of 2014, let us recall that redemption and liberation are hard to come by if you're held in indefinite detention in Guantanamo or, perhaps worse, a black site, and subjected to various forms of either explicitly sanctioned torture or those which are explicitly prohibited and thus carried out by other jurisdictions/nations with (barely) plausible deniability. What of their redemption? What of their liberation? And what of ours? If we as a nation, if we as human beings, are prepared to continue to ignore the full weight of accountability then we are accepting a blot on our history with full self-aware agreement, a stain that will never be removed. The most widely publicized "newly approved" torture technique was waterboarding, a practice so heinous that even the late hawkChristopher Hitchens found it impossible to permit. But it is hardly the only one, and the use of torture has corrupted outwards, with deceptions and denials permeating the CIA and many of its implicit channels of power.

There was a time when this was a blot created and blamed on the Bush administration. That history was amply and explicitly called out in a recent piece by Steve Coll, which ended with a call: "Can the American people at last have the facts about the Bush administration's embrace of torture as national policy, carried out in their name?" The Obama administration has become actively complicit in sheltering the torturers and so has almost the entirety of both House and Senate. The question of whether or not to allow torture should be answered with a resounding no. The idea of having zero accountability for the architects and implementers of torture is equally unacceptable. Make no mistake. This is not a sideshow issue. This is one of the central human rights issues in the United States. We urge you to contact your elected officials in House and Senate (see on how to do this for how to do this) and tell them not to stand for it. We urge you to refrain from giving donations to ANY candidate for any political office who will not take an unequivocal stand against torture and for the full release of information and for immediate hearings to be held. This is about the core of human rights and it can not wait. Call Senator Feinstein's office and thank her for her work and her stand and announce that you stand with her. Never give a pass to torture. Never forget the victims of torture. Never again is an ideal that needs to be remembered again and again.