Six years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney admitted that he had approved waterboarding as one of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Waterboarding had been defined as torture by the U.S. during World War II when the Japanese had employed it (although the U.S. had used the so-called water cure during the Filipino Insurrection in the early 1900s). An unrepentant Cheney claimed that torture had been necessary to keep America safe, and that valuable intelligence had been gathered as a result, a conclusion disputed by this week’s Senate report on the CIA and torture.
Since Cheney’s admission, it’s taken six years to render an incomplete accounting of crimes committed by the U.S. government in the name of protecting America. The American people will never receive a complete accounting of these crimes since much of the evidence, including videos of interrogations, has been destroyed. Other evidence is being suppressed (just as the worst photographs from Abu Ghraib were never shown to the American people), ostensibly in the name (yet again) of keeping America safe from the blowback that would result from a complete accounting.
Who is really being protected here? The American people? Or the people who authorized and carried out the torture?
I wrote the following article back in December 2008 on the futility of torture as a technique and also on the need to punish those accountable for ordering it. However, it already appears that the U.S. Department of Justice has no plans to prosecute anyone for these crimes.
So, after a week or so of media grandstanding and manufactured outrage, this story will fade from view, just as our government wishes it to. Look forward, not backward, as President Obama says. And so it is that the crimes will continue without any possibility of atonement or redemption. W.J. Astore
Cheney says he approved waterboarding. Is that the end of the story?
ASK THIS | December 20, 2008
The vice president gave the go-ahead for tactics commonly regarded as torture. Was that a war crime or not? William J. Astore provides some background on the issue and urges the press to show that it too can do aggressive interrogations. And do them now, without waiting for a new administration or a new Congress.
By William J. Astore
Is our sitting vice president a war criminal because he condoned torture? In an interview on ABC News on December 15th, Dick Cheney coolly admitted he had approved so-called “harsh” and “aggressive” interrogation techniques, notably waterboarding, in an attempt to extract intelligence from known or suspected terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Vital intelligence gathered about Al Qaeda, Cheney claimed, vindicated his decision, though this is much disputed. Subsequently, Cheney claimed that waterboarding and other harsh techniques did not constitute torture; this categorical denial was balanced by a counterclaim that he would have been remiss had he not authorized aggressive techniques in an attempt to safeguard Americans.
For approving these techniques and for other practices, The New York Times has attacked Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other Bush Administration officials. Calls have been issued for war crimes investigations. Are such calls warranted? Did Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others authorize techniques that constituted torture, and, if so, are they complicit in the crime?
Here, the Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry, and the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, offer valuable insights. Améry, himself a victim of torture, wrote about it in At the Mind’s Limits (1980). Torture, he observed, was a monstrous immorality because it violated another person’s body, reducing it to a vessel of fear and pain. Under such distress, the victim confesses to anything, even the wildest fictions and fantasies, as Améry himself did when he was tortured.
In its simulation of death by drowning, waterboarding is intended to produce great fear and psychological dislocation. It may perhaps leave no physical traces, but the mental wounds it inflicts are something else altogether. Their insidious effects on victims were captured by Améry in his conclusion on torture:
Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained …. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him. Fear—and also what is called resentments. They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.
Torture, in short, alienates its victims from humanity and generates (or strengthens) vengeful resentments. Améry carried his own resentments as a burden to remind himself—and us—of the moral enormity of any attempt to demolish another human being’s will through torture. For Améry, such attempts are both crimes and mistakes because they sow the seeds of future acts of vengeance.
A further disturbing insight comes from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964). Adolf Eichmann, desk-bound executioner and “Jewish expert” for the Third Reich, oversaw the deportation of Jews to their deaths during the Final Solution. A bureaucrat who never dirtied his own hands, Eichmann therefore judged himself to be less than fully responsible for the murder of millions. On this point, the judges at Eichmann’s trial reached a far different conclusion: “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” In crimes against humanity, degrees of separation from the dirty work only add to the offense.
Waterboarding is torture; Cheney and Rumsfeld approved it; and Améry and Arendt’s reflections suggest the immorality of, and culpability for, the crime. What now? Whether we find this distasteful or not, the press needs to show that it too can aggressively interrogate sources. Rather than waiting a month for an Obama Justice Department or a congressional investigation, the press should challenge incoming Obama administration officials now, together with new members of Congress. Outside legal experts should also be consulted. Does Baltasar Garzón—the Spanish judge who pursued Augusto Pinochet relentlessly—have an opinion? These are obvious leads for reporters.
To strengthen America’s moral authority, we need to reject the idea that demolishing our enemies’ resistance through torture is a necessary price of our safety. Let’s not balk at an expeditious and complete accounting of our mistakes—and of crimes committed in our name.