Scattered Thoughts on the “Torture Report”
Since the Torture Report was released yesterday, I’ve been thinking about a few things after its release. I need to state at the beginning of this that I think it is wrong for a democratic society to engage in torture. I oppose such methods as waterboarding. Having said all this, we don’t live in a black and white world,we live in a grey one and it is in this context that we have to make moral decisions. I will get to this later. But here are some thoughts:
- Is the CIA a rogue organization? The way that people are acting, it is seems as if the CIA just decided to do all of this on its own unbeknownst to Congress. Maybe that’s possible, but it seems like a stretch. Did the CIA lie to the Senate Intelligence Committee? Or are some senators throwing the CIA under the bus? The thing is, if the CIA did all of these things, we have a an organization run amok that either needs to be massively overhauled or dismantled with a new structure put into place. Former CIA heads have said Congress was briefed 30 times and “held nothing back.”So, were the CIA heads lying? Was Congress in the dark? I don’t know. It’s not impossible that the CIA keep people in the dark, but I think it is also possible that some in Congress knew, but are now singing a different tune. I tend to think the CIA didn’t act alone, but the other actors left no fingerprints.
- Is all of this unique to American history? As the allegations of torture became public a few years ago, there were many opponents that acted as if up until 2001, the US was a nation that upheld human rights and would never engage in torture. The abuses that took place during the Bush years were according to journalist Jane Mayer was a substantial break from our past where “America had done more than any nation on earth to abolish torture and other violations of human rights.”Oh, Really? What about the abuse that took place during the US occupation of the Phillipenes? What about the Phoenix Program of the 1960s and 70s? What about Operation Condor? While there wasn’t any torture, the imprisonment of over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II sure wasn’t a bright spot in American history. But as Wesley Yang noted in a 2008 review of Jane Mayers book The Dark Side admitting to past sins by America would go against the narrative she and many others believed in, that is, that America was a shining example of human rights that was sullied by the Bush Administration. What happened in the wake of 9/11 is shameful, but sadly it is not unusual.
- What was this exercise all about? I was one who advocated that the report should be released so that we would then have an accounting of what happened. Unfortunately, what we got was a report that is heavily politicized and that offers no way forward. Notice that no one is going to jail because of this report. Notice that there are no recommendations of how intelligence should be gathered in the future. The 9/11 commission at least had some recommendations. The Senate Democrats also chose to interview no one for this report. Why? Again, the 9/11 Commission at least interviewed people. This report only showed what the CIA did wrong, it did not say how we can make sure it won’t happen again. This makes me think that this release was more about scoring political points than it was about justice. Maybe there are reasons not to prosecute the guilty, but there should be at the very least some guidelines to prepare us for the next event that may happen. What will happen is that the CIA will become risk-averse, afraid to do anything that might get them hauled before a Senate committee years later. And then, when some other big event happens, we will wonder why the CIA didn’t do anything.
- The effectiveness of torture. Ever since I’ve heard folks talk about how torture doesn’t work, I’ve been skeptical. If something is ineffective, then it wouldn’t be used. I tend to think there have been occasions where it has worked. That’s not a reason to condone it, of course. But my fellow opponents of torture have made a big mistake in focusing on the effectiveness instead of zeroing in on the morality. If there turns out to be proof that torture did save lives, then the argument fails. You can’t base morality on the ends (ie: it doesn’t work); you have to focus on the means. Torture isn’t wrong because it doesn’t work, it’s wrong because the hallmark of a civilized and democratic society is how we treat others, especially the guilty.
- A Matter of Conscience (or lack thereof). I’m upset at the partisanship of the Democrats. But I am also upset at conservatives for their seeming lack of conscience. There seems to be this feeling among conservatives that the people that have been tortured at somehow less than human and therefore should not be treated with any human decency. I think liberals are incredibily naive when it comes to terrorism and torture, but conservatives incredibly callous. One example is fellow blogger Jazz Shaw. In his post on the report yesterday, he says torture isn’t an issue of human rights since our enemies don’t deserve to be called human. I’ve long liked what Jazz has had to say on various issues, but not this. There isn’t any concern that the person being interrogated might be the wrong person, or that we might harm someone that is innocent. No, they are all the enemy and therefore we can do with them what we damn well please. I know that we don’t live in an Eden. I know there are people who want to get us and destroy us. I can even understand that there might be times when our government has to do something that might be considered torture for the greater good. But it is still wrong to torture, even if we have to make a choice between bad outcomes. We have to believe that there is some greater standard to try to adhere to. As Americans, we might not always be able to live up to our values, but we should at least try and at the very least acknowledge those values instead taking the low road. Conservatives believe in morality, in right living. I’d like to know how torturing someone isn’t immoral. I’d like to see my fellow conservatives have a little twinge of conscience on this issue.
- Good reading. There has not always been thoughtful reading on this topic. But there are a few writers that have some wise things to say about torture that go beyond the left-right analysis. Ross Douthat wrote a great essay in 2008 about what was then called (rather erroneously) “torture-lite.” He’s written a follow-up that equally good and thoughtful. Douthat refers to an article written in 2009 by Jim Manzi that I was reaquainted with yesterday. Bob Kerry’s essay in USA Today is worth the read . John Schindler, a former NSA employee wrote a blog post yesterday about the CIA as one who used to work at Langley. He gives the perspective of someone on the ground.
Note: The cartoon is by Brazilian artist Carlos Latoff and is called, “It’s not torture when U.S. forces are doing it…”
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