Sunday, August 30, 2009

Torture and the American National Character

I published this essay several years ago on Econoculture, which now appears be defunct. I would have written this article very differently today - more directly, with less emphasis on listing examples - but I still believe all of it, so I'm posting it again here.

At the end of 2005, President Bush signed the Defense Appropriations Bill, which included an amendment sponsored by John McCain that reiterated that America was not going engage in “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of detainees, even when they happened not to be on American soil. Any impact this assertion might have had was immediately undercut by the Graham-Levin Amendment, also included in the Appropriations Bill, which limited the rights of prisoners to challenge their detention, and implied that information obtained under coercion was acceptable, as long as reviewed by a tribunal regarding its “probative value.” Finally, President Bush attached a signing statement to the bill, writing that he would interpret it "in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief," an extraordinary declaration which essentially indicated that he planned to ignore the bill he was signing.

After months of debate, then, what was finally signed was a virtually meaningless piece of legislation that was unlikely to affect the life of a single prisoner for the better. This seems to have been accepted calmly even by the people who fought for it. It is worth examining why, after battling the administration to get the amendment passed at all, they contented themselves with a bill that provided only the mildest salve to the national conscience and did nothing else. A good place to begin is with the rhetoric of John McCain himself.

While the amendment was being debated on the Senate floor, Jefferson Sessions, a Republic from Alabama, argued that the detainees were not like prisoners from past wars, who might deserve the treatment specified in the Geneva Conventions; instead, he argued, they were terrorists, a different type of soldier and human being. “It’s not about who they are,” McCain responded. “It’s about who we are.”

This argument has been a standby for McCain ever since. In an article he wrote for Newsweek, the American national character is again the focus of his argument. Its subtitle mentions two objections to abusive interrogation tactics: first, they produce bad intelligence; and second, they “undermine the values we hold dear.” He concludes the article by arguing that Americans are “valiant defenders of a sacred idea of how nations should govern their own affairs and their relations with others.”

This line of reasoning is popular, and echoed by opponents of the administration’s interrogation policies from across the political spectrum. John Hutson, a former admiral, says that failing to fix the issue of detainee abuse will “have changed the DNA of what it means to be an American” — this is quoted approvingly by Bob Herbert, a columnist at The New York Times. Thomas Friedman, another columnist, worries that we might find, in twenty years, that “some of America’s cultural and legal essence” has become mutated. Burton L. Gerber, a retired CIA agent, says that he opposes torture “because it corrupts the society that tolerates it.” In his introduction to The Torture Papers — the collection of administration memos and reports that shaped the detainee policy — Anthony Lewis quotes Donald P. Gregg, the national security advisor for President George H.W. Bush, who writes that “I can think of nothing that can more devastatingly undercut America’s standing in the world or, more important, our view of ourselves.”

Two things are notable about all of these arguments, and hundreds of others that repeat the same reasoning: first, the degradation of the national character is considered one of the primary costs of torture, and perhaps the most serious and irreparable; second, when attempting to reach the consciences of their audiences, the focus is always removed from the physical details of torture — dogs snapping at naked prisoners; men being beaten with rubber hoses; water being poured down the noses and throats of detainees during interrogations — and transferred to the abstract realm of national identity and aspirations.

Perhaps this is one sensible way to sway an audience, since the reality of torture is too horrific for most people to face. To put forth such arguments as if they were the primary ones, however, is disastrous, because they remove the focus from the genuine victims of the acts and direct it back towards the aggressor, whose suffering is of the vaguest and most tolerable kind. One can immediately see how ludicrous this argument would sound if transferred from the acts of a nation to those of a person. Would anyone assert that the main reason not to drop bombs on a civilian population is because doing so is bad for the conscience of the pilot? Would an opponent of the death penalty bother to mention the harmful impact the procedure might have on the self-image of the executioner? The reason such assertions are ridiculous is not because they are false—all of these acts do take a toll on the person committing them, just as torture surely does on the torturer; they are ridiculous because they represent a completely inverted set of priorities, in which the least pressing issue is given the most attention.

The problem with using the degradation of the national character as a rallying cry, as so many commentators and politicians have done, is that it is an exhortation with absolutely no urgency. A national character, to the extent that such a thing can be defined, changes slowly, and it is the rare person that can feel what is happening before the process is almost complete. Three years make little difference in terms of a nation’s cultural life. They are, however, a long time in a man’s life, especially if he is being held in prison without charges, and experiencing suffering within the legal standard set by Jay S. Bybee, the Assistant Attorney General—just short of the “pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.”


When the administration wanted to keep holding detainees without charging them with anything, and was dissatisfied with accepted methods of extracting information, it went to its lawyers for guidance on what was permissible. These lawyers combed the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the text of the debates between the framers. What they found was exactly what the administration wanted to hear: the founders’ words implied that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the detainees, and that anyone captured was an illegal enemy combatant who had no right to a speedy trial. Other scholars look at the same body of evidence and reach different conclusions. None of this is surprising. Any major piece of literature — from Hamlet to the Federalist Papers — can support several interpretations, based on the person and the society that examines it. Some interpretations may be more valid than others, but all of them can be defended with quotations and made to sound plausible to a person that wants to believe them.

For both sides, however, fighting the issue on this historical battleground has one immense consequence. When the dispute becomes a matter of parsing statements made by Alexander Hamilton, or on the 18th century definition of the world “declare,” something strange happens: the man that we first saw — hung for days from the prison ceiling by his hands, standing in a black hood on a box — disappears, and is replaced with words.

When this happens, everyone involved — the people that shape policy and the public that supplies the money for its implementation — start to lose sight of what is at stake, of what it means when you talk about the “Harm Caused by Or Resulting From Predicate Acts.” Such language distances us from reality, and we can easily forget that this vague legalism will eventually lead to a broken jaw, that the analysis of a stray phrase of Jefferson’s will turn into three years in a windowless jail cell. And we forget to say what is most fundamental: These are human beings. This is wrong.

One can imagine a lawyer responding, “I’m afraid that is not a legal argument.” And when opponents of the detainee policy deal purely with the law, they essentially concede that a simple assertion of human rights is inadequate. What both groups decide to downplay is that our laws are crystallized around our moral sense of how people should be treated. These laws are our way of acknowledging that everyone deserves the same treatment in some fundamental respects. So when the administration says that the laws that protect us do not apply to people in our custody, it essentially declares that these people are not human beings.

The focus on national character only reinforces this idea, along with the feeling that we are somehow fundamentally different from the people we imprison. In his Newsweek article, McCain talks about the abuse American prisoners suffered at the hands of the North Vietnamese. “Every single one of us,” he writes of his fellow soldiers, “knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them.”

McCain’s attitude implies that humane treatment is not something that every human being owes every other; it is something that America charitably extends to other countries because of our values, values that they are usually too barbarous to share. And he again indicates that abusing an enemy soldier is wrong not because the soldier is also a person, but because in doing so we “disgrace ourselves.”

When respecting our own laws and treaties is presented not as the obligation of a civilized nation, but as a favor we grant others because we are Americans, something has gone wrong. We can see the implications of this attitude, taken to its logical conclusion, in a decade-old CIA program called “extraordinary rendition.” American agents essentially kidnap people suspected of being terrorists and take them to an allied country where they are interrogated by that country’s agents. America, of course, treats these prisoners humanely, in accordance with our laws and national spirit. Our Middle Eastern allies, however, like Syria and Jordan, all have histories of human rights abuses. Torture is apparently part of their national characters. We hand over our prisoner to one of these countries, and walk away with easy consciences while a Syrian is allowed to give free rein to his national spirit.

In 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer, was captured as part of this program. After being put on a terrorism suspect list, he was picked up in JFK airport and then taken to Syria, where he was beaten repeatedly with “two-inch thick electrical cables” and kept in a “windowless underground cell” for nearly a year. Then he was released without being charged with anything. It is hard to believe that this was done to Arar with money that we gave our government. It is even harder to imagine what that year could have been like for him. Any real attempt to understand what our country is doing, however, begins with trying to make this identification. To realize that a single one of these detainees is a human being — to force ourselves to acknowledge the reality of his life — is to understand just how far America’s national character is from the heart of this issue.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that “the reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one's imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him.” The same is true of torture and of tolerance for torture; we have not, as a country of individuals, made the effort of imagination to conceive of powerlessness, of being subjected to brutality for the sake of extracting information that one may not know, or for no reason at all. Every argument that takes our focus away from the victims—that does not force us to recognize that each detainee, guilty or not, is a human being whose suffering is as painful for him as it would be for us — is one whose priorities are misplaced. To see the victims as symbols in a drama involving our national identity is to sacrifice these people to an abstraction.

The willingness of American politicians to do this — even those who have been principled enough to confront the administration — is the main reason for the extraordinary lack of urgency on this issue, both in Congress and the nation as a whole. When all that is at stake is a vague sense of our national character, our representatives can easily assuage their consciences with an amendment that makes us sound decent while not actually forcing us to act decently. In the end, when these men are finally charged, released, or die in prison, our willingness to accept such rhetoric will say as much about us as the fact that we kept them there in the first place.

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