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Time for the President to Take an Unequivocal Stand Against Torture Policies

By       Message Barton Kunstler     Permalink
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The United States's use of state-sanctioned torture during the Bush administration is, contrary to President Obama's public statements, not simply a stain on our past from which we can now move forward, presumably into forgetfulness. Torture transforms the torturers "" both individuals and the institutions they represent "" in deeply disturbing and destructive ways. The only path to avoiding another self-corrupting descent into national pathology is by openly, judicially, and morally confronting and condemning the premises and the perpetrators of these heinous acts. In this regard, President Obama's approach has been sadly lacking, and his failure in this area can undermine his own political agenda as well as the future credibility and stability of our nation.

This past weekend's report that Attorney General Eric Holder is about to appoint an investigator into CIA abuses seems to be a step forward. However, as will be discussed later in this article, it already appears to suffer from an infirmity of purpose that can only lead to a failure of its purported mission.

Earlier this year the President received accolades for reversing the Bush administration's support for using torture as a means of interrogating "suspects". He has also been criticized for not repudiating torture strongly enough. For example, the President's January 22nd executive order on torture prohibits its application to prisoners captured in "armed conflicts", thus leaving a loophole for torturing suspects detained "" either here or abroad "" as part of "counter-terrorism" operations. In other words, the executive order did not explicitly rule out the torture of detainees. Only the CIA was ordered to close its detention centers, leaving an administrative opening for torture to continue under another aegis. The order specifically made an exception of extreme measures not labeled torture, and the Red Cross will have access to prisoners of armed conflicts but not to other detainees.

Meanwhile, the President has apparently ruled out prosecutions against those officials responsible for implementing our use of torture. It is a "time for reflection, not retribution," and "we must move forward, not look back," he has famously said. I have no doubt that President Obama is against torture a statement that is no longer banal and self-evident. Bush and Cheney supported torture. They were facilitated by government legal counsel; the Attorney General of the U.S.; numerous military, CIA, and contracted personnel including XE/Blackwater; and a silent Congress in what amounted to a total corruption of our government.

President Obama is presumably trying to guarantee that such foul deeds never happen again. That said, he is not doing enough. The reasons seem clearly political. The President doesn't want to appear to be persecuting his Republican predecessors or intimidating Republicans in Congress. Or perhaps the powers that be think that the American people can't handle the truth, that witnessing Dick Cheney being led off to jail might be too traumatic a sight for us.

But it may not be a matter of political calculation at all but rather one of raw power. There are many in the Pentagon, CIA, and Congress who oppose any accountability that might undermine their institutions' reputations or set a precedent where they can be held liable for actions committed during military or police actions. The investigations simply will not be allowed to happen because too many very powerful people oppose them. It is also possible that many top members of the Obama administration actually believe that the information gathered from torture can be worth the price.

This is a common argument that in its crudest and most popular form asks, "If you knew a terrorist was about to explode a nuclear bomb in a major American city, and the only way to stop it was by torturing someone, are you telling me you'd still be opposed to torture?" That's a classic rhetorical device. Set up the worst case scenario "" hundreds of thousands of lives on the line "" and then present the controversial action as the only solution. For my part, if I weighed Boston or New York in one hand, and the torture of someone who could prevent it in the other, I wouldn't hesitate. Put him on the rack.

But it is a slippery technique. First off, none of the torture sessions at Guantanomo, Abu Ghraib, the Afghanistan, or rendition sites were aimed at stopping a nuclear attack. In fact, very few if any prevented a terrorist attack at all (if they had, we likely would have heard about it). "Aha," the defenders of torture will say, "how can we ever be sure a major attack is not being planned unless we interrogate suspects with all the resources at our command." It's an endless loop. You have to torture to find out if there is any good reason to torture. Which brings us back to the crux of the matter: where does one draw the line? As we've seen with the victims of U.S. torture, we did not torture to prevent impending attack. We tortured for the same gruesome reasons that torture has been used throughout history and in over 150 countries today according to Amnesty International.
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Before we examine the "why" of it, let's address the other popular pro-torture argument: it yields crucial information. Many torture opponents argue, somewhat disingenuously I believe, that one never gets useful information through torture because a person under such duress will say anything to make it stop. This is only partially true. If someone knows names, addresses, formulas, bank account numbers, plans, odds are very good they will give them up under torture. However, most victims of history's torture programs have had very little, if anything, of value to offer. And no one has invented a test that determines who actually has useful information and who does not. Torture is virtually always implemented as a policy, not as a desperate step reluctantly taken in a rare and special case. As such, it has always been applied to a far broader population than just the most hard-core suspects.

That is why it is dispiriting to see the Obama administration briefly drawn into arguments over whether any useful information was garnered from all the torture we inflicted. Forget the fact that most of the detainees at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo were innocent or at most, low-level personnel. The very notion that torture is an information-mining device, to be broadly applied in hopes of digging up some morsel inaccessible by other means, is not only highly immoral, it is idiotic. Information will be made up; it will be distorted. It is insane to think that by torturing everyone who happens to fall into a police or military sweep, or was hiding a few weapons, needs to be tortured for the precious gem of information they just might have "" if it even exists. Torture bypasses and undermines solid intelligence and investigatory work and more subtle and effective interrogation methods. And here the argument that torture does not yield useful information is valid "" the picture put together based on the inflicting unendurable pain on a broad swath of people will prove seriously distorted and misleading.

The information derived from torture will also be distorted by the torturers themselves, by the information harvesters. They often over-value the information they receive because of a false assumption that it is rock-solid, since it was yielded under duress. Also, to justify the extreme steps they took to extract the information, they will tend, in their reports, to overstate its importance. After all, the more expensive an operation in either economic or moral currency, the more pressure there is to demonstrate its validity, the value of its results.

But there is an even uglier reality behind torture and it hasn't really entered into the recent political debate: the act of torture is sociopathic and psychopathic at its very core. That means the people who sanction it, who review the harvest of material it yields, and who carry it out are engaged in a warped activity that by its very nature distorts the analysis and application of the extracted data. At that point, it almost doesn't matter "" from both moral and objective-based perspectives "" whether the information is accurate or not. The twisted history of torture attests above all to the inherent pathology of the act itself, a pathology that deepens with every turn of the screw and that transforms the torturer into something unrecognizable and distinctly alien from what they once had been.

Isn't it interesting that no country "" ours included "" ever has trouble recruiting torturers? There's always someone to do the job, always doctors ready to keep the victims alive and coherent, always apologists ready with their assurances that "we're not really like this, but in this case we just had to use extreme measures." Torture has been practiced by innumerable tribal societies and by most modern national governments. Torture is bred deep in the bone. We must grasp just how deeply if we are ever to achieve its demise.
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The link between torture and repressed sexuality is a staple of the literature on torture. Sex and torture are mirror images of one another. Both worship the flesh and devotedly explore the body's recesses: sex for pleasure, intimacy, and new life, and torture for pain, dehumanization, and death. In both, one's partner is often felt to "belong" to another, although in sex that feeling is supposed to involve mutual devotion, however temporary. Both acts aim to reach the core of the other's being. The two converge in sado-masochism and extreme fetishism. Rape is a frequent instrument of torture. Might torture be a drive as primal and irresistible as sex? Or is torture what happens when sexuality becomes hopelessly twisted?

Torture also has a strong component of pleasure in it, at least for the type of person who commits it. What else but pleasure could generate the passion and imagination expended on designing body-breaking racks and wheels; the iron maiden and the scavenger's daughter; the brain-twisting drugs; and all the techniques of fire, blade, electricity, water, and ice? The Bush/Cheney torture machine used beatings and body-twisting and stretching methods as well as suffocation (waterboarding), but it seems our most creative efforts were expended on humiliating prisoners, which again touches on the sexual component of torture.

No other creature inflicts extended agony on another's body, so we can't blame torture on our animal nature. Torturers are consummately human, hunting the inner core of soul and personality, the ultimate triumph compelling victims to confess themselves wrongdoers even when "" especially when "" they are innocent. It results in the illusion, at any rate, of total power over another and hence total mastery of one's own domain. Any information the torturer gains is secondary; most victims have nothing to tell and the torturing agency knows it. At bottom, torture is its own end with a special message: we are in total control, we are unassailable, you are just an extension of our will or the will of the state.

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Barton Kunstler, Ph.D. is a writer of fiction, essays, poetry, and plays. He is author of "The Hothouse Effect" (Amacom), a book describing the dynamics of highly creative groups and organizations. His play, "An Inquiry in Florence", was recently (more...)

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