Friday, September 2, 2011
September 2, 2011: Not Tortured Enough
In the bridge of Bruce Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” (2007), a beautiful if bleak assessment of American identity at the end of the Bush era, the speaker remembers what his father used to tell him about their home town and nation, an idealistic perspective that culminates in the lines, “You know that flag flying over the courthouse / Means certain things are set in stone / Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.” Any in-depth familiarity with the darker side of American history, a side about which of course I’ve written plenty in this space, reveals that many of the things we have always said we “won’t do” have in fact been done, often frequently and with institutional sanction or even support. Yet even if our actions have thus often belied our beliefs and ideals, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still significant value to professing the ideals, to having a broadly shared and agreed-upon set of goals for what our country should be at its best.
There’s plenty of room for debate about what those ideals have included, both overall or in particular historical periods, but to my mind near the top of the list has to be the belief that our government and authorities do not utilize the kinds of tactics seen in brutal dictatorships or police states (or even in the kinds of authoritarian monarchies that were contemporary to the founding era). So, for example, our authorities (both military and domestic) do not torture prisoners, neither as a matter of official policy nor as a matter of unofficial practice. On a broad level, that fundamental ideal helps explain why the Reagan administration signed on to the 1987 UN Convention Against Torture, illustrating what Reagan called in his message to the Senate the US’s “clear opposition to torture”; and on a more specific level, this ideal similarly led the US to aggressively pursue war crimes prosecutions against Japanese military interrogators who had tortured American prisoners of war during World War II. As the two articles linked below document at length, the most common torture method utilized by those Japanese torturers was a form of simulated drowning that had been around since at least the Inquisition, and was typically called the “water cure”; it has since come to be known principally, and in recent years here in America infamously, as waterboarding.
The fact that American interrogators at Guantanamo (and likely if less admittedly at other prisons and CIA black sites around the world) waterboarded captives in the years after 9/11 is not in dispute; while at times Bush administration officials sought to deny such practices, the published memoirs by both Bush himself and (most recently) his vice president Dick Cheney have not only confirmed but also actively defended them, claiming (against all historical and international precedent) that they do not constitute torture, as well as arguing (against all available general and specific evidence) for their overall utility and their specific informational value in these cases. And those claims and arguments have been echoed and extended by numerous other commentators and politicians. It’s difficult to overstate just how fully, then, the conversation on this particular issue and American ideal has changed in the last decade—from a general opposition to torture and a specific willingness to classify waterboarding as a war crime within that category; to debates over whether waterboarding is really so bad and concurrent arguments that perhaps it is worth making it official US practice in any case. Those changes would seem to illustrate Springsteen’s point very precisely, but a more cynical take might be that they prove false the idealism at the heart of his lines and song—that, if it’s so easy for us to abandon this ideal in favor of pragmatic debates about the utility and efficacy of torture, perhaps the ideal was never really held with any sincerity, was never truly our home.
The biggest problem here, that is, might not be that Americans tortured prisoners, nor even that those tortures were authorized and supported at the highest levels of our government. It is, after all, possible if not likely that such horrors have been part of our darker and too often hidden histories for decades if not centuries. The biggest problem might be that, when the histories this time came out into the light, our national debates over them have, far too often, been just plain not tortured enough. More this weekend,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A professional interrogator details the history of waterboarding, including the post-World War II war crimes trials: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/02/AR2007110201170.html
2) A more politically charged, but still powerful and informative, history of the practice: http://waterboarding.org/water-based_torture_history_with_pictures
3) OPEN: What do you think?