The Evil of Banality
Like most Americans, I was horrified to learn about the shocking brutality contained in the declassified Senate torture report. Under a legal edifice erected by the Bush administration, CIA interrogators subjected terror detainees to large scale, state-sanctioned sadism. Thanks to these horrors perpetrated in all of our names, terms of art like "rectal hydration" and "rape by broomstick" are now part of the American national security lexicon. (The latter had already been introduced by the NYPD in the case of Abner Louima during the height of "Giuliani Time.") These offenses didn't just "shock the conscience"; they violated U.S. and international law. They were, as President Obama lamented, "contrary to who we are."
But what if the president of the United States is wrong? What if, unlike me, most Americans weren't horrified by torture as an instrument of national defense? What if waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation, and other tactics are no longer contrary to American values? What if Americans believe, as John Yoo does, that torture must be defined as "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death?"
That is the grotesque possibility suggested by recent polling on the subject of torture. As polling from AP, the Pew Research Center, and others has suggested, the American people increasingly believe torture of terror suspects can be justified. It may just be that a decade after the disgusting images from Abu Ghraib, the "debate" over torture has immunized to the reality. Perhaps years of repeated (though debunked) torture defenses, clashing claims that its efficacy "saved lives" and "prevented attacks," bureaucratic euphemisms such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" and catchy talking points like "bad apples" and "Club Gitmo"--and worse--have made the once unthinkable seem commonplace and even routine for many Americans.
Writing in the Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham concluded, "Let's not kid ourselves: Most Americans are fine with torture, even when you call it 'torture.'" This week, the Pew Research Center offered some insight as to why:
The use of practices like waterboarding began to surface publicly in press reports not long after 9/11, and when the Pew Research Center first surveyed on the subject in July 2004, a narrow majority (53%) said the use of torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists could be only rarely or never justified.
Opinion has shifted since then, with more Americans finding torture acceptable. In August 2011, a narrow majority (53%) of Americans said the use of torture could be often or sometimes justified, while 42% said it could only rarely be justified or not be justified at all.
A more recent poll by Associated Press/NORC conducted in August 2013 found similar results. Half said the use of torture could sometimes or often be justified while 47% said it could rarely or never be justified.
Unsurprisingly, the surveys show a massive partisan chasm on the question of torturing suspected terrorists. Pew's 2011 survey found that a substantial majority of Republicans (71 percent) said torture could be at least sometimes justified, compared with 51 percent of independents and 45 percent of Democrats. In the AP/NORC poll two years later, 66 percent of Republicans backed use of torture in dealing with terrorists compared with 53 percent of independents and 39 percent of Democrats.
That persistent gap is no coincidence. The Bush White House, its Republican allies in Congress, the conservative commentariat online and off, and the entire Fox News network for years have assured Americans that "the United States does not torture." In 2007, then-GOP White House hopeful Rudy Giuliani compared torture to running for president; this week, his Fox News colleague and attorney Kimberly Guilfoyle likened it to taking the bar exam. Even the term torture itself was semantically waterboarded, replaced among loyal Bushies, defensive Republicans, Fox News talking heads and, as current CIA Director John Brennan has showed once again, with the euphemism enhanced interrogation techniques. And as Harpers' Scott Horton among others reminded us in 2007, Team Bush's favorite term sounded better in the original German:
Before there were "enhanced interrogation techniques," there was verschärfte Vernehmung, (which means "enhanced interrogation techniques") developed by the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst in 1937 and subject to a series of stringent rules. Now, as we have seen previously, there were extremely important differences between the Gestapo's interrogation rules and those approved by the Bush Administration. That's right - the Bush Administration rules are generally more severe, and include a number of practices that the Gestapo expressly forbade.
As Andrew Sullivan pointed out, during the war those German officers who went beyond the verschärfte Vernehmung were punished. And after the war, as Horton helpfully recalled, those defended their brutality at the Nuremberg trials by saying they were "just following orders" or acting to prevent imminent attacks were put to death.
Undefeated and unrepentant, since leaving office George W. Bush and Dick Cheney haven't just confessed their support for waterboarding and other EITs they ordered; they bragged about it. (That prompted Scott Horton to remark, "What prosecutor can look away when a perpetrator mocks the law itself and revels in his role in violating it? Such cases cry out for prosecution. Dick Cheney wants to be prosecuted. And prosecutors should give him what he wants.") So, now as then, Bush, Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Condi Rice, and the rest of the Bush Torture Team have followed a simple script. What the United States did wasn't torture, was legal and, in any event, saved American lives. This week, the former head of the CIA's clandestine service Jose Rodriquez regurgitated those sound bites in a single sentence:
The interrogation program was authorized by the highest levels of the U.S. government, judged legal by the Justice Department and proved effective by any reasonable standard.
Of course, Rodriguez never wanted Americans to make that judgment on their own. That's why he ordered the destruction of 92 videotapes showing detainee interrogations, ensuring neither Congress nor the public would ever see them.
Now the report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence rejected each and every one of the claims that torture "worked." But largely overlooked in the imbroglio this week is the most important issue of all--that is, the question isn't whether torture worked (it didn't), but whether it was legal (which it wasn't.) As I documented in detail elsewhere, the regime of detainee torture blessed by the Bush administration and carried out by the CIA and its pain-for-profit contractors violated U.S. and international law. In his May 1988 signing statement accompanying the Convention Against Torture (CAT), President Ronald Reagan noted that it "marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment." As the Gipper explained in his message to the Senate:
The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called "universal jurisdiction." Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.
In 2011, former Bush National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered a novel legal theory to students at Stanford University:
The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations under the Convention Against Torture...The United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture, and so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. [Emphasis mine]
Of course, Richard Nixon couldn't have provided a more sinister justification of President Bush's lawlessness. But whereas Nixon and his henchmen faced impeachment and prosecution for their crimes, no one from the Bush administration has paid any price at all. Last summer, John Yoo was awarded an endowed faculty chair at the UC Berkeley School of Law. Bush appointee Jay Bybee remains on the federal bench. Cheney's legal alchemist David Addington is now creating alternative realities at the Heritage Center. Psychologist James Mitchell, one of the consultants who helped the Bush administration render the Geneva Conventions quaint, didn't lost his professional credentials, even after claiming, "I'm just a guy who got asked to do something for his country." Jose Rodriguez, who as head of the CIA's clandestine service personally ordered the destruction of dozens of interrogation videotapes, is a conservative hero who preemptively smeared the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA torture program despite having never read a word of it. Meanwhile, Dick Cheney appears regularly on your television screen to accuse President Obama of treason. As for Cheney's former Oval Office sock puppet, George W. Bush, he is free to paint himself in the shower and give speeches to "replenish the ol' coffers."
It's no wonder that a majority of Americans now believes torture is sometimes or often justified to extract information from prisoners the U.S. swept up during the "Global War on Terror." When you can turn off the latest episode of 24 only to watch your congressional rep cite Jack Bauer as a role model, torture becomes expected, assumed, routine, and banal. What the United States once executed Japanese and German soldiers for doing is now presumed to an essential part of the American war-fighting tool kit Zero Dark Thirty told us so. Apparently, the Inquisitor isn't a villain after all, just as long as he's on our side. The unimaginable is now the unexceptional, the unnatural the new normal.
This normalization of torture isn't a unique phenomenon. In 1983, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined a term for it: "Defining Deviancy Down." Looking at crime, mental illness, family dissolution and other societal ills, Moynihan argued that, for reasons good and bad, Americans increasingly considered as normal behavior once viewed as pathological. He famously concluded, "We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us." So it may be with the acceptance of torture, the acknowledgement of which may be simply too shameful--and too painful--for many during a period of national fear and anxiety over Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Iran. And as Moynihan, conservatives' favorite liberal, concluded:
As noted earlier, Durkheim states that there is "nothing desirable" about pain. Surely what he meant was that there is nothing pleasurable. Pain, even so, is an indispensable warning signal. But societies under stress, much like individuals, will turn to pain killers of various kinds that end up concealing real damage. There is surely nothing desirable about this. If our analysis wins general acceptance, if, for example, more of us came to share Judge Torres's genuine alarm at "the trivialization of the lunatic crime rate' in his city (and mine), we might surprise ourselves how well we respond to the manifest decline of the American civic order. Might.
Might, indeed. As studies by Paul Gronke and Darius Rejali of Reed College and their colleagues suggest, drilling deeper into public opinion--and asking the right questions--paints a different picture of Americans being "fine with torture."
For starters, the Americans with the most to lose by the nation's de facto acceptance of torture--members of the U.S. armed services--are the ones most opposed to it.
In their 2009 analysis, Gronke, Rejali et al. found that the press and political leaders alike were mistaken to look at the aggregate polling data and conclude that the public was behind them. Looking at the 10 interrogation techniques in the infamous Bybee memo and 13 laid out in the Bradbury memo, the authors asked, "Does public approval change when painful interrogation techniques are not called torture?" Their answer:
When asked about actual torture practices such as waterboarding or sexual humiliation, public support mostly collapses.
The lessons for all of us seem clear. First, name it and shame it. Then repeat. With its stomach-turning portraits of American intelligence personnel forcing prisoners to stand on broken limbs, to freeze to death on cell floors, to suffer sexual humiliation, to withstand days without sleep, to undergo anal violation (real and threatened) and simulate drowning and death, the Senate report doesn't let us look away from the horrors committed in our name. Even more important, the American Torquemadas and the Bush administration officials who provided cover for them must face prosecution for their violations of U.S. law and treaty commitments. Punishing this lawlessness is not, as Republicans along with President Obama and Attorney Eric Holder posit, about "criminalizing policy differences" or "looking backwards, not forward." Otherwise, as E.J. Dionne and Jonathan Turley among others rightly warn, the United States may very well torture again. As the CIA's John Brennan defined deviancy down during his press conference Thursday:
As far as what happens in the future, if there is some kind of challenge that we face here, the Army field manual is the established basis to use for interrogations. We CIA are not in the detention program. We are not contemplating at all getting back into the detention program, using any of those EITS, so I defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar kind of crisis.
To put it another way, welcome to the new normal. And this new normal is an evil place to be.