Friday, May 27, 2005

Making Torture Appear Normal

It's good to see the New York Times taking torture seriously. At least I think that's what they are doing. And I think it probably is good. But I could be wrong. It could be that the New York Times is simply helping the administration weave torture into the national fabric. Maybe it's too soon to tell.

Here, extended quotes from and comments on Bob Herbert's op-ed piece of May 26.
With the Gloves Off

A photo of President Bush gingerly holding a month-old baby was on the front page of yesterday's New York Times. Mr. Bush is in the habit of telling us how precious he thinks life is, all life.

The story was about legislation concerning embryonic stem cell research, and it included a comment from Tom DeLay urging Americans to reject "the treacherous notion that while all human lives are sacred, some are more sacred than others."

Ahh, pretty words. Now I wonder when Mr. Bush and Mr. DeLay will find the time to address - or rather, to denounce - the depraved ways in which the United States has dealt with so many of the thousands of people (many of them completely innocent) who have been swept up in the so-called war on terror.
Yes, totally depraved. It's not as if all the victims of American brutality are terrorists. Most of them are completely innocent, picked up becase they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because someone with a grudge mentioned their name to the wrong person. Argggh! This is how we bring democracy to the world? This is how we liberate people?
People have been murdered, tortured, rendered to foreign countries to be tortured at a distance, sexually violated, imprisoned without trial or in some cases simply made to "disappear" in an all-American version of a practice previously associated with brutal Latin American dictatorships.
Sadly, the practice previously associated with brutal Latin American dictatorships was -- and continues to be -- exported there, by ... guess who?
All of this has been done, of course, in the name of freedom.
Yeah, and liberty and democracy and religion and every other iconic American code-word you can possibly think of. Falsely, in every case.

You want to know what ticks me off the most? It's not just that they lied. It's that they had to lie. They could never have told the truth about this. No matter how depraved Americans may seem, the government simply cannot tell the American people "We're doing this for money and oil and power." People would get upset. Some of them, anyway. And that would make it difficult for the would-be dictator.
The government would prefer to keep these matters secret, but we're living in a digital age of near-instantaneous communication. Evidence of atrocities tend to emerge sooner rather than later, frequently illustrated with color photos or videos.
Right. And that's been worrying Donald Rumsfeld. So he may decide to do something about it. But in the meantime...
A recent report from Physicians for Human Rights is the first to comprehensively examine the use of psychological torture by Americans against detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The employment of psychological torture, the report says, was a direct result of decisions developed by civilian and military leaders to "take the gloves off" during interrogations and "break" prisoners through the use of techniques like "sensory deprivation, isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, the use of military working dogs to instill fear, cultural and sexual humiliation, mock executions, and the threat of violence or death toward detainees or their loved ones."

"Although the evidence is far from complete," the report says, "what is known warrants the inference that psychological torture was central to the interrogation process and reinforced through conditions of confinement."

In other words, this insidious and deeply inhumane practice was not the work of a few bad apples. As we have seen from many other investigations, the abuses flowed inexorably from policies promulgated at the highest levels of government.
I couldn't agree with you more, Bob. No wonder the New York Times is sometimes accused of being a liberal paper. Speaking of which, where's the coverage of massive election fraud, you "liberal" paper, you? Oh, sorry, I wasn't supposed to mention that, was I?
Warfare, when absolutely unavoidable, is one thing. But it's a little difficult to understand how these kinds of profoundly dehumanizing practices - not to mention the physical torture we've heard so much about - could be enthusiastically embraced by a government headed by men who think all life is sacred. Either I'm missing something, or President Bush, Tom DeLay and their ilk are fashioning whole new zones of hypocrisy for Americans to inhabit.
Well on one hand that's exactly right but on the other hand we have infinite hypocrisy already. Who needs more hypocrisy zones?

So the fact that the administration is building more of them can only mean one thing.
There's nothing benign about psychological torture. The personality of the victim can disintegrate entirely. Common effects include memory impairment, nightmares, hallucinations, acute stress disorder and severe depression with vegetative symptoms. The damage can last for many years.
Or for a lifetime.
Torturing prisoners, rather than making the U.S. safer, puts us all in greater danger. The abuses of detainees at places like Guantánamo and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have come to define the United States in the minds of many Muslims and others around the world.
And many Americans, as well.
And the world has caught on that large percentages of the people swept up and incarcerated as terrorists by the U.S. were in fact innocent of wrongdoing and had no connection to terrorism at all.
Exactly. The world has also caught on to the fact -- and this is perhaps the most horrible part -- the United States refuses to release most of these prisoners for the very reason that they are innocent. They know too much to set free; they have no power where they are now. They are more dangerous 'out' than 'in' and therefore a great many of them may very well die in prison.
Bitterness against the U.S. has increased exponentially since the initial disclosures about the abuse of detainees. What's the upside of policies that demean the U.S. in the eyes of the world while at the same time making us less rather than more secure?
Aha! The ultimate rhetorical question! Or maybe it isn't rhetorical at all.

The upside is this: if the rest of the world is against us and we are less secure, then we must need more weapons. No problem! There's always another 80 billion dollars to be had for the next round of expenditures. And the companies which supply our so-called "defense" department have never been happier.

Nor have the power-brokers in this country who think the majority of the people have too much freedom.
The government, like an addict in denial, will not even admit that we have a problem.
It can't. Like Stalin or Hitler before him, Bush has portrayed himself as infallible. Any admission of mistake now would destroy the entire facade. Despots over the years have killed millions of their countrymen rather than admit a mistake.

But they don't think we do have a problem. Or, more precisely, they don't think that they have a problem. They are not the ones burying their kids or their parents or their spouses ... and they don't care about the tax burden either. They're getting most of the tax breaks, plus they're making money on the war. What could be better?

I'm serious. What could possibly be better? We are engaged in a war which looks as if it might go on forever. This is exactly what our so-called "leaders" want. And that's why they are not even trying to win. They're only desire is to make it last as long as possible.
"We're in this Orwellian situation," said Leonard Rubenstein, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, "where the statements by the administration, by the president, are unequivocal: that the United States does not participate in, or condone, torture. And yet it has engaged in legal interpretations and interrogation policies that undermine that absolutist stance."
In other words, the president and his spokesmen tell lies. What else is new? Complicated lies, interconnected lies, new lies built upon older lies and big lies built out of smaller lies. Orwellian indeed.

It's the old theory of "give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile". Once we accept the notion that "the government sometimes faces situations in which it must lie to its people", we're very close to a world where the government never feels compelled to tell the truth at all.

Just one short step ... Or is it?

Maybe I'm looking at this all wrong. Maybe it's only a short step to a place where the government can start telling the truth about torture. We're already being prepared for it, according to this recent piece by Adam Green which appeared in the New York Times on May 22.
Normalizing Torture, One Rollicking Hour At a Time

The acclaimed Fox series "24" has received a lot of attention over its four successful seasons: for its innovative real-time format, its braided storylines, its heady brew of national security and sentimentality, and its uncanny topicality. From Balkan nationalist revenge to rogue agents with biological weapons, wars on and of terror have been portrayed in exacting detail, shaping entertainment out of headlines that often stretch the imagination.

This is even more true of the current season [...] it's possible that this year's "24" will be most remembered [...] for its portrayal of torture in prime time.
I don't watch "24" so I hadn't realized -- until I read this piece -- how much torture there has been in prime time, and how unrealistically it has been portrayed. Not that this surprises me.
[O]n the present season of "24" torture has gone from being an infrequent shock bid to being a main thread of the plot. At least a half-dozen characters have undergone interrogation under conditions that meet conventional definitions of torture. The methods portrayed have varied, and include chemical injection, electric shock and old-fashioned bone-breaking. Those subjected to these treatments have constituted a broad range, too, from an uncooperative associate of the plotters to a Middle Eastern wife and son linked to an operative to the teenaged son of the current season's secretary of defense...
All styles served here, and to all comers. How 'quaint'.
What is most striking about torture on "24" is how it affects not only politics but also emotional and professional relationships. The C.T.U. data technician Sarah Gavin, interrogated with tasers to discover if she were a terrorist mole, subsequently returns to work showing no signs of trauma. Indeed, she marshals the clarity of mind to renegotiate her terms of employment with her superior, who approved her interrogation just hours earlier. The war-protester son of Secretary of Defense Heller, more alienated than ever after a session of sensory deprivation in a C.T.U. holding room, receives a strikingly paternal lecture from his father about why that treatment was appropriate. Even Audrey's husband, Paul, somehow rises above his grievance to view his erstwhile tormentor as a buddy, helping Jack extract documents from a defense contractor and fend off attack - and even loyally taking a bullet for him. In all of these interactions, torture doesn't deaden the feelings between people, rather it deepens them.

It is often noted that torture goes against the tenets of human community in two fundamental ways. Because torturers deny the basic humanity of their victims, it's a violation of the norms governing everyday society. At the same time, torture constitutes society's ultimate perversion, shaking or breaking its victims' faith in humanity by turning their bodies and their deepest commitments - political or spiritual belief, love of family - against them to produce pain and fear. In the counterterrorist world of "24," though, torture represents not the breakdown of a just society, but the turning point - at times even the starting point - for social relations. Through this artistic sleight of hand, the show makes torture appear normal.
What do you think? Is "24" alone in its portrayal of torture? Are similar things happening elsewhere on TV? I don't know; I don't watch much television.

But more to the point, is the New York Times helping to expose an evil agenda, or are they part of that agenda? Is Bob Herbert's column going to stir the masses, or is he playing the role of the token liberal idiot railing against things that are best ignored?

You want my opinion? I think that depends on you! If you are willing to be stirred, if you are ready to take constuctive action, then Bob Herbert is a hero. But if all you want is to sit on the couch and watch "24" then he's just another token liberal idiot...

In any respectable country, the citizens would have been out in the streets -- by the millions -- a long time ago. So ... What's it gonna be, America? What are you waiting for?