As the U.S. Senate’s report on the appalling litany of tortures committed by the CIA nosed its way through the news cycle, the public debate took on a queasily familiar fatalism. Shocked readers of the report might deplore torture, but they can see that our governing institutions aren’t about to do anything serious to stop it.
Testifying before Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Committee on Intelligence, CIA chief John Brennan brandished the talismanic invocations of 9/11 that attended all manner of catastrophic ventures a decade ago, from the invasion of Iraq to the presidential campaign of Rudolph Giuliani. Meanwhile, Congress broke down into petty and rote partisan recriminations over the alleged motivation behind the report, neatly bypassing the truly ugly implications of its contents. The Obama administration, as is its increasing wont, tried to remain aloof, having already announced in 2009 that it would not pursue any legal proceedings arising from the Bush White House’s illegal conduct of the war on terror. Dick Cheney was yet again dragged out by Fox News to proclaim he remained quite pleased with the brutal and immoral handiwork of the national security state he’d presided over, and that he’d “do it again in a minute,” if he had the chance.
All this deliberately bypassed the real enormity of the situation. The Senate report confirmed in nauseating detail what most Americans already knew but have chosen not to process in any meaningful, public way: A secret arm of government brutalized interrogation subjects — many of them innocent of any wrongdoing, and none afforded due process — out of range of any domestic oversight and in flagrant violation of international human rights law. The CIA, the Justice Department and the Bush White House routinely lied about both the use of torture and its utility in producing actionable intelligence. Most mainstream news organizations refused even to use the word “torture” to characterize these systematic abuses at the time they were carried out.
This is the kind of total corruption, enabled by a federal bureaucracy devoted to the manufacture of official lies that one expects in a police state, not in the oldest democratic republic of the Western world.
All of which, naturally, raises the question of how the Senate report’s findings might actually make a difference — and how we might break out of the elaborate armature that our leaders have erected to neutralize any serious discussion about the realities of torture, so that we can hold the architects of America’s torture state accountable for their actions, in the court of public opinion as well as in the court of international law. The UN is mounting an inquiry into whether officials of the Bush administration violated human rights law, but those efforts will likely stop shy of any legal proceeding, in large part because the United States still doesn’t recognize the jurisdiction of the main body charged with enforcing global human rights law, the International Criminal Court. President Obama has assured Americans that torture doesn’t reflect “our values” and will not continue, yet he has continued to operate the detention facility in Guantanamo, in violation of one of his best known 2008 campaign pledges. Not to mention that the fatalities from US drone attacks — an indiscriminate and secretive mode of limited warfare arising out of the same theology of state impunity that rationalizes torture — now rival in number the number of Americans killed in the September 11 attacks.
Our democracy is in a crisis, says Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of the indispensable 1998 study A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. “If the structures of accountability have been broken, how do we go back to the structures to repair them? And if they can’t be repaired, what are the new arenas we should use to air these questions?” She concedes, “I really don’t know.”
Perhaps the Cheneyite apostles of torture should face a different sort of public tribunal, one grounded in the experience of newly roused democracies emerging out of brutal authoritarian rule: a truth and reconciliation commission. These proceedings are devoted to the cause of simply putting officials in sustained public contact with the consequences of their actions, in order to make genuine public penance for abuses that are not reparable by the traditional parliamentary or legal remedies. Of course, the victims of state torture were not American citizens, so the “reconciliation” wouldn’t be an accord effected between government and citizenry — the aim of commissions in post-apartheid South Africa, Argentina after the military dictatorships of the 1980s, and Chile after Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror. But at a moment when American values are routinely used both to justify torture and to swear off its ugly legacy, it would be worth convening a public body to determine just what those values are, in relation to the urgent question of how we project American power in the world — and what it means when an unaccountable body of leaders acts outside the bounds of those values or any other recognizable principles of civilized conduct.
Feitlowitz warns, however, that since the victims of our own torture regime aren’t U.S. citizens, a broader public inquiry probably wouldn’t gain much traction in America. She also cautions that a great deal of deliberative spadework has to occur before a truth and reconciliation inquiry gets impaneled, and that the United States, where polled majorities consistently supported torture prior to the release of the Senate report, has a long way to go before approving any such notion. “You have [to have] a preponderance of a society who has voted, a lot of societal buy-in and the perception that a kind of justice will be served.”
John Dinges, a Columbia journalism professor who lived in Chile during the Pinochet years and is currently working with Chilean human-rights activists to create a national archive of the regime’s crimes against its citizens, notes that one legal strategy would be to have a third country — for example, a nation that hosted one of the notorious “black sites” used for CIA interrogations — initiate a legal proceeding. “Any country can use universal jurisdiction, which is what they used against Pinochet in Spain. … The European convention against torture could also provide grounds to go after people in the United States. There are lots of avenues.” Dinges says.
He believes that the Senate investigation stops well shy of the heart of the matter. “Denouncing something — which is what this is — does not remove impunity. [The enablers of torture] are still shrouded with impunity — in part because they’re being defended by a whole sector of American policy. That’s really dangerous. Are we really going to say that when the Republicans come back in to power, they’re going to allow torture again? I mean, that’s pretty frightening.”
Still, to have a serious domestic inquiry into the practice of torture, with real political consequences, “you have to have a political movement,” Dinges says. Momentum behind such a movement would have to start, obviously, with overturning the prevailing consensus that torture was justified — a process that one can only hope the Senate report’s horrific findings will jumpstart. Feitlowitz sums up the dilemma for human-rights activists bluntly: “Are we really willing to accept being powerless about this?”
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