William J. Astore on American Torture

U.S. troops use the “water cure” in the Philippines, 1902

Back in 2009, I wrote a few articles on torture during the Bush/Cheney administration. With Barack Obama elected on a vague platform of hope, change, and transparency, there was a sense torture would be outlawed and torturers would be called to account. Obama did sign an executive order to outlaw torture – which really meant nothing more than that the U.S. would abide by international treaties and follow international law with respect to torture – but torturers were never called to account. The failure to do so has left us with a new president, Donald Trump, who says he supports torture (though his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, does not), and a person nominated to head the CIA who enabled torture and helped to cover it up.

Here are a few points I made back in 2009. We should consider these as Congress debates whether to place the CIA in the hands of a torturer.

Recently [2009] in the New York Times, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti showed that the Bush administration, the CIA, and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees failed to ask for any historical context before approving so-called “harsh interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, in 2002. No one apparently knew, or wanted to know, that the US had defined waterboarding as torture and prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Did our leaders think the events of 9-11 constituted an entirely new reality, one in which historical precedent was rendered nugatory?

Perhaps so, but their failure to ask historically-based questions also highlights the narrowness of their intellectual training. Like the accused Nazi judges before the bar in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), they asked themselves only what the law is (or what it became under John Ashcroft and John Yoo), not whether it is just. If a legal brief authorized brutal methods such as waterboarding, who were they to question, let alone challenge, the (freshly minted) legal opinion?

Clearly, the leaders making and implementing decisions on torture constituted a single, self-referencing, self-identified Washington elite almost entirely divorced from thinking historically, let alone tragically. And because they could think neither historically nor tragically, they found false comfort in picturing themselves as stalwart defenders of the nation, not recognizing the mesmerizing power of vengeance and hate.

Our elected officials who find history books too onerous would do well to invest three hours of their time to watch Judgment at Nuremberg. They might learn that a compromised judiciary will uphold any action – discriminatory race laws, involuntary sterilization, even mass murder – all in the name of defending the people from supposedly apocalyptic threats.

Indeed, defending the country from apocalyptic threats is a popular line for those wishing to uphold the Bush Administration’s policy on torture. After the tragedy of 9/11, and…

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