Back to News & Commentary

Digby: Highest Ideals

Share This Page
May 22, 2008

By Digby, Hullabaloo

Back in 2005 or so, I heard Lynn Cheney on NPR’s Fresh Air energetically describe the United States as a country whose history should be taught as living up to the highest ideals of human achievement. In light of the fact that the Bush administration may have the dubious distinction of committing the first war crimes of the 21st Century, she has an unusual view of human achievement, to say the least. After all, Vice President Dick Cheney personally insisted that the administration “push the envelope” and the highest levels of the Bush administration are now known to have personally signed off on torture techniques in meetings at the White House. Just this week it was confirmed that people throughout the government were aware of the torture. Despite the president’s insistence that “we don’t torture,” it’s quite obvious that we do. The question now is, what are we going to do about it?

Torture and America

There is much discussion these days about aggressive internal investigations of the torture regime by a new administration or perhaps some energized congressional hearings with a compliant executive branch. People have even brought up the possibility of a truth and reconciliation commission, based upon the South African model. The idea is that it is more important to gain full transparency with respect to the kidnapping, rendition, endless imprisonment and torture in order that we demonstrate America’s desire to rectify its mistakes and regain its credibility in the world. It’s impossible to know if any of these things will happen.

One thing we definitely know will happen is that we are going to be dealing with the fall — out from this policy for many years to come. One of the problems with torture is that you end up creating torturers as well as victims and you wind up with a damaged society for having done so.

Back in 2005, Jason Vest wrote a piece on the subject for National Journal in which he spoke with a number of old CIA hands who were opposed to the use of torture on a variety of grounds:

Speaking at a College of William and Mary forum last year, for example, Burton L. Gerber, a decorated Moscow station chief who retired in 1995 after 39 years with the CIA, surprised some in the audience when he said he opposes torture “because it corrupts the society that tolerates it.” This is a view, he confirmed in an interview with National Journal last week, that is rooted in Albert Camus’s assertion in “Preface to Algerian Reports” that torture, “even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy,” represents “a flouting of honor that serves no purpose but to degrade” a nation in its own eyes and the world’s. “The reason I believe that torture corrupts the torturers and society,” Gerber says, “is that a standard is changed, and that new standard that’s acceptable is less than what our nation should stand for. I think the standards in something like this are crucial to the identity of America as a free and just society.”

The moral dimensions of torture, Gerber adds, are inextricably linked with the practical; aside from the fact that torture almost always fails to yield true or useful information, it has the potential to adversely affect CIA operations. “Foreign nationals agree to spy for us for many different reasons; some do it out of an overwhelming admiration for America and what it stands for, and to those people, I think, America being associated with torture does affect their willingness to work with us,” he says. “But one of my arguments with the agency about ethics, particularly in this case, is that it’s not about case studies, but philosophy. Aristotle says the ends and means must be in concert; if the ends and means are not in concert, good ends will be corrupted by bad means.”

Just after the torture at Abu Ghraib was revealed, a pair of psychologists, Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam, wrote this for the BBC magazine:

When administration officials talk about cleaning out “rats’ nests” of Iraqi dissidents, it likens Iraqis to vermin. Note, for example, that just before the Rwandan genocide, Hutu extremists started referring to Tutsi’s as “cockroaches”.

Such use of language again creates a climate in which perpetrators of atrocity can maintain the illusion that they are nobly doing what others know must be done. The torturers in Iraq may or may not have been following direct orders from their leaders, but they were almost certainly allowed to feel that they were behaving as good followers.

So if we want to understand why torture occurs, it is important to consider the psychology of individuals, of groups, and of society. Groups do indeed affect the behaviour of individuals and can lead them to do things they never anticipated. But how any given group affects our behaviour depends upon the norms and values of that specific group.

The Vice President of the United States publicly referred to the torture method known as waterboarding as a “no-brainer” which shows that this form of behavior is sanctioned and approved at the highest levels of our leadership. Two Attorneys General have been unwilling to state categorically that waterboarding is torture, and therefore illegal. (One of them was involved in authorizing it.) Congressional leaders have referred to Abu Ghraib, which included murders by torture, to be nothing more than a “sex ring” while famously religious Senators claim that waterboarding isn’t torture beacuse “it is not like putting burning coals on people’s bodies… The impact is psychological.” A highly paid talk show host made light of it saying soldiers need to “blow off some steam.” A CNN television feature reporter did a “humorous” report on waterboarding, saying “don’t try this at home kids.” The list of torture apologists gets longer by the day.

It’s fair to assume by now that many Americans, particularly young people who have no frame of reference, believe that torture has been officially sanctioned in our society:

No one really disputes that Chad Hudgens was waterboarded outside a Provo office park last May 29, right before lunch, by his boss.

And it’s widely acknowledged that the supervisor, Joshua Christopherson, then told the assembled sales team, whose numbers had been lagging: “You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.”

…Christopherson called the men into the break room and announced, “We’re going to do an exercise.” He asked for a volunteer.

Hudgens raised his hand.

“Keep in mind,” he said, “the last time we did a team-building exercise outside, we did an egg toss.”

Prosper maintains that Christopherson explained what would happen next, and Hudgens knew what he was in for, even handing his cellphone and keys to co-workers before lying down. Hudgens insists he had no clue.

“So they held me down,” Hudgens said, “and the next thing I know, Josh has a gallon jug of water and he’s pouring it on my face. I can’t scream because the water’s going down my throat.

“And halfway through he stopped for a second. I tried to mumble the words, ‘Stop, knock it off.’ I tried to get that out and he continued to pour.”

“I’m not getting any air,” Hudgens said. “Toward the end, I’m starting to black out. I’m getting very dizzy, light-headed. The sensation that’s going through my head is, ‘I’m going to drown.’ ”

That is the oft-described whole point of waterboarding, though Hudgens said he was not then familiar with the word. He said that what he told a friend in the human relations office two hours later, after “coughing, choking, mucus” was: “My team just tried to kill me.”

We are now living in a culture that has decided that torture is no longer a deviant, unspeakable behavior, but rather a useful tool. It’s not hidden. It’s no longer taboo. People publicly discuss whether torture is really torture if it features less than “pain equivalent to organ failure,” or whether psychological torture can be considered torture at all. Businesses are using it for “motivational” purposes. Television uses it for entertainment. People no longer instinctively recoil at the word.

And the acceptance of torture leads inexorably to a debate about whether people are deserving of universal human rights at all. After all the atrocities of the 20th century, with millions of people who lived through them still alive, it is profoundly disappointing that with all of our progress toward fulfillment of our founding principles, (admittedly, in fits and starts) America is the nation that provokes that conversation in the 21st.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page