Die Folterer Sind Unter Uns / The Torturers Are Among Us

In 2001, in New York City, America was shocked by a singular act of violence: the entire world could hear our pain. In the moment our security was uncertain “and the future unthinkable, but one thing seemed impossible in any circumstance: that one day men should be made to scream in terror and pain by those acting in our name.”[1] However, in the wake of terror impossibility faded in the face of fear, and fear itself faded into an infectious and abiding alienation, the consequence of which has been our national shame. Enshrined in the USA Patriot Act and the policy of torture at Guantanamo Bay, the legacy of the September 11th attacks has been one marked not by heroism, but rather an ignominious retreat into suspicion of the sort which would find enemies wherever they are looked for, or else create them if none are present. Against these enemies we were promised that spying and violence would bring us security, but as partners and agents of torture, we have debased ourselves.

Nonetheless even today there are those that dispute our guilt. They dispute even that what we have done should be named as torture. The method of denial is alternatively bluster or equivocation, [2] but it ends always in the cynical effort to change the nature of a thing by changing its name, to make torture more palatable through the bland name of ‘enhanced interrogation.’ To this end men like John Yoo, Jose Rodriguez, Jay Bybee and John Ashcroft, among many others, have conjured fictions of necessity and proportionality so as to apply a veneer of restraint across the otherwise unrestrained violence of torture. They have told us that to whom and by whom something is done are qualifying factors which can change the nature of that which is done. Together they sought to disguise the horror of torture by cloaking it in arcane legalese. The memos and policies which they wrote and endorsed quibbled over the distinction between the specific intent to torture, and the naturally excruciating consequences of a brutal interrogation.[3] They drew meaningless distinctions between torment severe enough to make its victim believe, with faith that only the truly desperate can know, that they would die, and pain which a sterile, medical judgement would qualify as life threatening.[4] But in the end none of what they say matters because words alone cannot cloak the character of what they have done. No matter how it is disguised the nature of torture itself is immutable: it is the infliction of pain for the sake of pain.

There can be no pretense that torture for the sake of another purpose is in any way distinguishable from torture as the thing in itself. As George Orwell wrote; “The object of torture is torture.”[5] And, there can be no pretense that what we have done is anything but torture. Robert Baer, a former agent of the CIA, spoke to these facts with his remark that “if you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want to see them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”[6] This callous reality was but a part of our government’s practice. From at least 2002 until 2007 prisoners under the power of our government were subjected to the intentional infliction of physical and mental torment. The most infamous of the tortures employed was that of water-boarding, which was described in the CIA’s own words as “a series of near drownings.”[7] Two prisoners, Khalid Sheik Muhammad and Abu Zubaydah, were water boarded 183 and 83 times respectively.[8] The physical consequence of this abuse was such that the prisoner became at times “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open full mouth.”[9] Henri Alleg, a journalist and critic of colonialism was once water-boarded himself. In recounting his ordeal, Alleg describes how he was first bound to a stiff board after which his mouth was stuffed with a rag and his entire body inverted. Presently his torturer turned on the tap to begin the flow of water, and “the rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save me from suffocation.”[10] This is the reality of what he suffered, and of what we have done.

But, even then, the worst crime of the torturer is not the pain which they inflict upon the body, but rather it is how their instruments can rend the soul. “Anyone who is tortured remains tortured …. Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world, the abomination of the annihilation is never extinguished. Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again.”[11] The worst crime of the torturer is that they make the world like themselves; full of hate and suspicion.[12] And the greatest harm done to our nation has come not from the external enemies which challenge us, dangerous though they may be, but rather from our own tolerance for depravity when it is done in our name. The first we can confront with clear hearts, while the second will fester until it sours our nation. The legacy of torture is that it destroys not only the subject, but the agent as well.

Against these facts the defenders of torture posit fantasies. They would have us believe first that torture is not torture, and then failing that, that it is necessary nonetheless. They would have us believe that our application of torture has saved lives, that it has somehow strengthened these United States.[13] But the ticking time bomb scenario which is so often cited, and depicted in masturbatory fiction like Zero Dark Thirty and 24, is non-existent. Of the celebrated successes of American counter-terrorism, the death of Osama Bin Laden, thwarting Jose Padilla, the capture of Khalid Sheik Muhammad, and so on, not a one was dependent upon or aided by the application of torture.[14]

In fact, many of those who were detained at Guantanamo Bay could not possibly have aided counter-terrorism efforts, because they themselves knew nothing. Of the 779 men who have been detained in that prison, only 5% were captured by American soldiers.[15] The rest were handed over by local forces or civilians, many of them for no reason other than the bounties which were offered. Lawerence B. Wilkerson, the former Chief of Staff for Colin Powell, acknowledges as much, saying that “it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance,” and that many of these innocents “clearly had no connection to al-Qaida and the Taliban and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pakistanis turned many over for $5,000 a head.”[16] Even knowing this, we tortured regardless. Our failure came as a reaction of fear, and we bowed to the promise that violence could defeat violence, that terror could vanquish fear. The offered justifications for torture are nothing more than the last, banal, redoubt of those who would permit anything done in defense of their own camp, so long as it is done to another. But, if we depend upon torture for our defense, for our strength, then we must ask what quality of nation is it that we are defending? This is the fundamental fantasy of the torturers among us. They believe that our nation can at once be a nation that tortures, while also retaining the qualities of freedom and respect for human dignity which made us great in the first place.

This is impossible, because as an extension of human malevolence torture is distinguished from the more recognizable violence of murder and war and other deprivations in this it is not momentary or confined by circumstance. It requires control of the subject, and a sobriety of planning such that it cannot be done simply upon impulse. As such, no matter what purpose is ascribed to the act of torture, torture must always be understood as the manifestation of the desire to torture. Those men who attacked the United States on September 11th were brutal and uncaring, and they beget no sympathy. We know them to be evil, they burned our city, but similarly brutal and uncaring are the men whom we employed to exact our vengeance scream by scream. Our failure lies in our inability to recognize as much.

It is because we still think of torture in this way, as something which is done to and by others, that we have been unable to face our guilt. Such is the conceit which allows Ben Carson to proclaim that “there is no such thing as a politically correct war,”[17] as if it is political correctness alone which should restrain us. Similarly for Marco Rubio, who denounces the “widespread and systematic use’ of psychological and physical torture to obtain confessions”[18] when it is employed by Iran or Cuba, while applauding those who practice the same cruelties in our name. When these advocates of torture speak, they do so circuitously, as when Jeb Bush deferred making a “definitive, blanket type of statement.”[19] They do this because they are incapable of considering the question directly. To do so would shatter the world of fantasy in which they live, wherein they can consider torture as a bloodless abstraction, as something that happens to others, done by the righteous to the deserving. It is therefore our duty to do that which they cannot or will not do. It is ours to consider directly the reality of torture as an “ignoble and vicious crime, committed by men against man [which] another man can and must rebuke.”[20] It is ours to shatter the fantasy of abstraction, the conceited indulgence of which ignores its own lesson: that “anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.”[21] Lucky are those who have lived and died without having had to consider whether or not they would lose themselves if they were drowned and beaten and kept awake for days, but luckier still are those who have not had to ask themselves that other question: “if my country, if my leaders, would suffer these things to be done to others in my name, what would I do?”[22]

The torturers are among us still. James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were contracted by the CIA to devise new mechanisms and procedures for torture. For this service they were paid tens of millions of dollars. John Yoo and Jay Bybee drafted the memos which twisted the meaning of pain and torture in order to justify its intentional infliction upon other human beings. Jay Bybee is now a Federal Judge for the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals and John Yoo teaches law at the University of Berkeley. Alberto Gonzalez directed their work, and is now in a position to write hypocritical editorials urging other people to respect the dignity of their fellow human beings. Jose Rodriguez, who defied a Federal Judge by destroying the evidence of his crimes, lives freely as a private citizen. Dick Cheney and George Bush, who hold ultimate responsibility for everything which was done, retain the privilege of leading a public life. These men have all been agents of indescribable wrong, a wrong which is replicated by our tolerance for them and their crimes. Reconciliation of our guilt demands that they be tried before a court of law.

As a nation we have a unique capacity to inspire awe. As a bastion of liberty and good governance untold millions have looked towards us with the hope that justice can truly flourish in a dangerous world. Our ideals are our greatest strength, and it is only when we fail in our commitment to them that we fail as a nation. Unfortunately, by the cruel application of violent interrogation we have degraded ourselves. We have failed our ideals, and we have failed to be better than those malevolent elements of hatred and tyranny which we sought to fight.

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, La Victoire in Henri Alleg, La Question (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), xxvii.

[2] Peter Baker, “Dismissing Senate Report, Cheney Defends C.I.A. Interrogations,” The New York Times, December 8th, 2014, accessed September 11th, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/world/dismissing-senate-report-cheney-defends-cia-interrogations.html.

[3] “Thus, even if the defendant knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent even though the defendant did not act in good faith.”
Jay Bybee, “Justice Department Memo on Torture,” in A Guide to the Memos on Torture, ed. The New York Times, accessed September 11th, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/ref/international/24MEMO-GUIDE.html

[4] “… severe pain is an indicator of ailments that are likely to result in permanent and serious physical damage in the absence of immediate medical treatment. Such damage must rise to the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant body function. These statutes suggest that “severe pain” as used in Section 2340, must rise to a similarly high level – the level that would ordinarily be associated with a sufficiently serious physical condition or injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions – in order to constitute torture.”

[5] George Orwell, 1984 (Orlando: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 556.

[6] “Fact Sheet: Extraordinary Rendition,” The American Civil Liberties Union, accessed September 11th, 2015. https://www.aclu.org/fact-sheet-extraordinary-rendition

[7] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, Senate, 113th Congress, at 12 (2014).

[8] Ibid., 147

[9] Ibid., 12

[10] Henri Alleg, La Question, 49.

[11] Jean Améry in Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 25.

[12] “You know,” he said, turning to Simony. “Now I know Vorbis is evil. He burned my city. Well, the Tsorteans do it sometimes, and we burn theirs. It’s just war. It’s all part of history. And he lies and cheats and claws power for himself, and lots of people do that, too. But do you know what’s special? Do you know what it is?”
“Of course,” said Simony. “It’s what he’s doing to –“

“It’s what he’s done to you.”


“He turns other people into copies of himself.”
The philosopher Urn speaking to the revolutionary Simony about the torturer Vorbis.

Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 320.

[13] “CIA Directors: Interrogations Saved Lives,” The Wall Street Journal, December 10th, 2014, accessed September 11th, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/cia-interrogations-saved-lives-1418142644.

[14] Matt Apuzzo, Haeyoun Park, and Larry Buchanan, “Does Torture Work? The C.I.A.’s Claims and What the Committee Found,” The New York Times, December 9th, 2014, accessed September 11th, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/12/08/world/does-torture-work-the-cias-claims-and-what-the-committee-found.html.

[15] “Guantanamo By the Numbers,“ The American Civil Liberties Union, accessed September 11th, 2015, https://www.aclu.org/infographic/guantanamo-numbers.

[16] “Ex Bush Official: Many at Guantanamo Bay Are Innocent,” Fox News, March 19th, 2009, accessed September 11th, 2015, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/03/19/ex-bush-official-guantanamo-bay-innocent/.

[17] Heather Digby Parton, “Ben Carson’s sick torture rational: Is this 2016’s most deluded contender?,” Salon, February 20th, 2015, accessed September 11th, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/02/20/ben_carsons_sick_torture_rationale_is_this_2016s_most_deluded_contender/.

[18] Simon Maloy, “Does he stand for anything? Rubio’s cowardice on human rights & CIA,” Salon, December 10th, 2014, accessed September 11th, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2014/12/10/does_he_stand_for_anything_rubios_tortured_cowardice_on_human_rights_cia/.

[19] “Jeb Bush declines to rule out use of torture as President,” The Guardian, August 14th, 2015, accessed September 11th, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2015/aug/14/jeb-bush-torture-iowa-video

[20] Sartre, La Victoire, in Alleg, La Question, xxxii.

[21] Ibid., xxviii

[22] Ibid.


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