Today US representative John Conyers hosts a hearing on the Bush administration's love affair with torture. Conyers, who appears to be one of the only US politicians actively pursuing the question of the government's torture policy, has called the hearing in order to discuss the now infamous "torture memo", penned in 2003 by then Bush attorney John Yoo. Yoo, as well as several other former and current administration water carriers, declined Conyers' invitation, but even if Yoo had managed the trip from his Berkeley Law School office he likely wouldn't have said anything worth hearing. What he undoubtedly would have done, however, is reaffirm one of the most telling lessons of the Bush administration: never mistake sobriety of tone for sanity of thought.
Let's look at the most recent torture revelation. Last week a previously unreleased letter from United States deputy assistant attorney general Brian Benczkowski soberly stated: "The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of an act."
The acts alluded to are, of course, the still shadowy interrogation techniques that the Bush administration permits the CIA to use against its adversaries. Let's bracket the slippery language of the statement -- "threatened", "reasonable" and "outrageousness" are all promiscuous words easily parsed for convenience's sake -- and look at the US government's not so muted reliance on intention, something that has long been a component of its rationalisation for using "coercive interrogation" (which has evidently become the American English pronunciation of the word "torture"). For many people incarcerated by the US, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The Bush administration hopes that the intentionality of its interrogators actions will diminish the criminal nature of the acts should any CIA operative ever be called into court. This is a vigorous, pre-emptive washing of hands -- a rhetorical exculpation and mitigation of responsibility. Given the crooked timber of international law, this may fly, legally. Morally, logically, though, it's corrupt.
The confusion here lies between the intended action and desired result. Torture isn't incidental, and you can't torture by accident. Interrogators fully intend the infliction of emotional and physical anguish, but they maintain that what they hope to glean from such barbarity isn't merely the satisfaction of pain and anguish. In addition to this perverse surplus value, the US government relentlessly stresses that knowledge gained through pain is useful and nobly obtained.
The efficacy of torture is, of course, doubtful. In fact, most experts in the field claim that information gained through physical or emotional coercion fails to provide much actionable intelligence. Despite this evidence, however, the seduction of "ticking bomb" scenarios persists, and not merely as a plot device in second-rate films.
That the argument from intention so often crops up has a great deal to do with how a democracy can and can't stomach its torture. On its face, the concept of torture appears inimical to democracy, but history argues otherwise -- before the US in Iraq and Cuba, there was the US in the Philippines, France in Algeria, and I'm sure that, for a certain period, the sun never set on British torture. The list goes on. While ostensibly democratic regimes can sacrifice the dignity of non-nationals (or in the case of Jose Padilla, non-white citizens), appearing arbitrary in the application of this power imperils the legitimacy of a government that purports to act on behalf of its citizens. Americans, notwithstanding some of our sadistic cultural exports, don't want to think of their nation as one that hunts to hurt. Thus, this emphasis on intention is the velvet glove slipped over the steel fist of recent US history.
And it's working. Despite frequent, creepy revelations of executive branch malfeasance and legal sophistry, despite an international power that categorises the Geneva Conventions are "quaint", despite repeated evidence of torture doesn't work in time-sensitive scenarios, the issue receives very little sustained attention. The three remaining presidential contenders have avoided substantive public discussion of this issue. As we've seen today, Bush operatives refuse to answer questions even when posed by the US Congress. And we seem to be OK with it. This is, quite literally, a shame. Although most Americans, me included, will continue living our comfortable versions of the American dream, the persistence of a US torture regime allows the rot to set it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but torture's presence in a democracy indicates liberalism's absence.
Michael Washburn is the assistant director of The Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is a regular contributor to The New York Observer's Review of Books.
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