A recently released $40 million dollar Senate Intelligence report revealed that in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Central Intelligence Agency tortured terror suspects through “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In response to the report, CIA Director John Brennan apologized for some of the interrogation methods utilized by the agency in the post-9/11 era designed to elicit information that could prevent future terror attacks and lead to the location of Osama bin Laden.
Whether either objective was fulfilled remains a serious bone of contention, even after release of the Senate report. In fact, the issue of whether the enhanced interrogation techniques itself constitutes torture has triggered even greater debate in some conservative political corners following the report’s release.
In an article titled “The Reclamation of Torture” published on August 25, 2014 in Justia’s VERDICT, Cornell University’s Visiting Law Professor Joseph Margulies made a stunning, if not startling, observation about how the word “torture” is both perceived and used in this country. As Professor Margulies noted, prior to September 11, 2001, waterboarding and any kind of “enhanced interrogation techniques” were considered torture, especially in media reports.
That’s probably because seven years before 9/11, the U.S. Senate ratified the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture, effectively joining a global denunciation against the use of torture. Two years later, in 1996, Congress defined torture as an act “intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to law sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.”
But the tragic events of 9/11 changed the way torture is perceived in this country.
As Professor Margulies pointed out, a 2010 Harvard University research team published a study which revealed what the professor called the “striking differences in how waterboarding and kindred techniques had been described by the press before and after September 11.” During the 70 years prior to the horrific terror attacks, the American press had routinely referred to these interrogation techniques as torture. But after 9/11 and the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal, the media perspective about usage of the word “torture” dramatically changed. “In nearly 300 articles,” Professor Margulies reported, “the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today described waterboarding as torture a total of four times.”
On July 24, 2014, the European Court of Human Rights strenuously denounced Poland for allowing CIA to set up black site torture facilities in that country after 9/11. The court specifically called the “enhanced interrogations” used at these facilities as nothing other than torture. Perhaps because of this human rights court ruling, Dean Bacquet, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, informed the public and the rest of the media that the nation’s flagship of print journalism would refer to these CIA interrogations as “torture” in the future.
Professor Margulies said Bacquet is the only media representative to offer any sort of explanation for this shift in reporting policy. The editor said the shift could be attributed to a change in the national debate on the torture issue—a debate now, according to Bacquet, “focused less on whether the methods violated a statute or treaty provision and more on whether they worked …” The editor added that it is time for “the Times [to] use the word ‘torture’ to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”
Perversely, Americans (animal-loving people) have never had much trouble recognizing and defining torture of animals but have been conflicted in determining exactly what constitutes torture against humans.
The American Friends Service Committee has documented torture in U.S. prisons since 1975; independent studies have established unequivocally that the military has tortured prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other military facilities. One judge in the UK observed in 2006 that “America’s idea of what is torture … does not appear to coincide with that of most civilized nations.”
President Obama in an off-the-cuff comment three days after the Human Rights Court ruling said, “we tortured some folks.” The president had no choice but to make this admission. The Senate Intelligence Committee had just concluded its torture study, informing the White House that the report, and its torture conclusions, was forthcoming. The president’s casual reference to the CIA’s use of torture not only demeans the word itself but reflects the ambivalence this country has toward inflicting pain and suffering for real or imagined gain.
The president’s reaction to the recent release of the report was equally benign. “These [interrogation] techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interest with allies and partners.”
President Obama again missed the mark. The issue is not how the use of torture may affect America’s standing in the world or impact its relationships with partner nations. The issue is that torture is violent, repulsive, and contrary to the basic human decency of a civilized society. Our president has a moral duty, an obligation to this nation’s citizenry, to vigorously condemn the use of torture under any circumstances.
But as Professor Margulies pointed out, the president saying “we tortured” much easier than saying “we are torturing.” The professor explained why:
“To say the former—that we engaged in reprehensible behavior that is now behind us—fits neatly with one of our most cherished myths: that the country is on an endless journey towards a more perfect Union. This sentiment instantly makes allowances for all transgressions, consigning them to a presumptively flawed past for which we cannot presently been blamed. In fact, we are to be congratulated for recognizing our mistakes and denouncing them, if only from the safe distance of time.”
In reality, torture is woven into the American experience. The parents of our Founding Fathers tortured Native Americans in order to seize their land; the Founding Fathers and their sons used their armies to match the British with torture for torture, atrocity for atrocity; our Founding Fathers brought human beings from other countries in chains and put them in slavery with an open willingness to torture them into accepting their subjugation; and night riders, men covered by sheets (some of whom were “pillars of the community,” lynched and “tortured some folks” because they were black or immigrants.
To put it mildly, America has indeed “tortured some folks.” And it will continue to do so, mostly unnoticed, undetected, and, above all else, unrepentant. This nation has not reclaimed torture as Professor Margulies suggests; it has always held this contemptible behavior close to its breasts, sometimes less visible than others.