Neither Victims Nor Torturers

Alberto Mora was one of the speakers at Swarthmore’s commencement this spring. He gave a short, terse and I thought powerful speech about the decisions he had made as General Counsel for the U.S. Navy and about the consequences of the sanctioned use of cruelty and torture by the United States government.

Mora touched lightly but poignantly on one point that has been on my own mind a lot in the last year. As we look back on the last eight years with the hope of some different dispensation and leadership in the years to come, there is one development that haunts me more than any other.

If you had asked me in 1998 what I thought the consequences would be if the United States government was revealed in public to have officially sanctioned torture in its own secret as well as public detention facilities as well as through rendition of detainees to regimes employing torture, and that this sanction started from the Oval Office and was methodically reinforced throughout the executive branch, I would have said that this revelation would be an enormous scandal with catastrophic political consequences for any sitting President.

In the past, U.S. officials have assumed the same thing. It’s clear that from time to time from the 1950s onward, both intelligence and military officials in the U.S. government have employed torture, illegal detention, and similar tactics against agents of other governments, armed insurgents or against non-state actors. But there has always been considerable care taken to keep such actions secret, to not challenge their illegality, and to assume that if these actions were revealed, those who took them or sanctioned them would and probably should face legal and political consequences. Top levels of the executive branch were insulated from these activities, at times by cynical design, but mostly because there was a broad consensus that such actions should not be official, sanctioned or legal, not be policy.

In 1998, I would have told you that there would be an enormous political uproar in the case of the sanctioning of torture because I assumed that the American people and most of their political leaders would not stand for such a policy. I would have assumed that any political support for such a policy would be relatively small, perhaps no more than a quarter of the voting population at best.

I’m very unhappy about a lot of the developments of the last eight years. Nothing makes me unhappier than the discovery of how very wrong I was in my assumption about the political consequences of the systematic authorization of torture. I should have sensed where the wind was blowing when I came across clear “trial balloons” like Mark Bowden’s 2003 celebration of torture as a crisply professional activity. (Bowden’s later pathetic response to Abu Ghraib: those guys were bumbling amateurs, as long as you professionalize cruel interrogations, you won’t get pyramids of naked detainees and the like.) Bowden is a good reporter and a pleasant guy: when he agreed to flack shamelessly for torture, it was a sign that the moral consensus I assumed was present was in fact absent, that many seemingly decent people were going to endorse torturing detainees in the war on terror, with indifference to the standards being used to determine whether or not those detainees even had important information or were guilty of anything in particular.

Every successive day since 2003 has revealed just how thorough and explicit the commitment of the American political and military leadership has been to torture and illegal detention, even if there are those like Mora who strenuously opposed this shift in policy. The Administration is responsible for a great deal, but when it comes to the systematic endorsement of cruelty and torture by our government, the guilt is a lot more distributed because the popular support for such a policy has been a lot more widespread. If you want a sign of how far the yardposts have been moved, look at how carefully John McCain has had to maneuver on the subject of torture so as to not offend his political base, despite his own alleged opposition to Administration policy.

Whatever comes next, however much of the damage can be repaired (by whomever the next national leadership might be), this change will make me sad for the rest of my life. There’s no easy retreat from knowing that a lot of the people around you are willing to sanction torture and are indifferent about the guilt or innocence of those subjected to it.

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6 Responses to Neither Victims Nor Torturers

  1. David Chudzicki says:

    When I think of this public sense about torture, sometimes I think of the (fairly popular?) TV show “24” (first aired in November 2001). The use of torture in the show didn’t really shock me, but the fact that torture was just used, and not treated as any kind of moral issue certainly did.

  2. SamChevre says:


    This essay finally makes something make sense to me: why so much of the blogosphere is so upset about torture. Here’s the key:

    In 1998, I would have told you that there would be an enormous political uproar in the case of the sanctioning of torture because I assumed that the American people and most of their political leaders would not stand for such a policy. I would have assumed that any political support for such a policy would be relatively small, perhaps no more than a quarter of the voting population at best.

    That’s the difference: I can’t remember ever thinking that. So I think torture is unsurprising and routine–evil, yes, but “normally” evil. (I always am bringing up the Hofer story–but seriously, if you don’t know it, read it. Now.)

  3. AndrewSshi says:

    Let me offer a somewhat more optimistic spin on what the Bush administrations shenanigans represent. In the past, it was often accepted in the sense of being “winked at” that torture and other unspeakable things happen in war zones or in the out of the way places where folks like the military and CIA work. That the Bush Administration felt that they had to go through all kinds of acrobatics to have torture legally and bureaucratically accepted indicates that we live in a society that’s no longer willing to condone Unspeakable Things done in the shadows. IOW, we have advanced enough that the Bush Administration had to ask for permission for things that two generations just would have been done regardless of legality/morality.

  4. fridaykr says:

    With all due respect to AndrewSShi, the Bush administration has not “asked permission” or sought acceptance with which to prosecute its most controversial practices associated with its war on terror. Far from it. Instead, it has tried to conceal what is doing, just like previous administrations. Just to take three obvious examples: 1) the existence of the CIA black sites and the practice of rendition was never publically disclosed until leaked by the NYtimes; 2) the so-called torture memos authorizing what is, in effect, institutionalized torture, were never publically acknowledged until they had to be disavowed; and 3) President Bush has continuously used what are known as signing statements attached to laws passed by Congress, including a recent law banning the use of tortune by the U.S. military, to quietly and –one could argue –unconstitutionally carve out exemptions to the these statutes.

    All three of these examples seem to me acts intended to avoid accountability while at the same time arrogating the authority to act as it pleases. If this is a form of progress, it is a strange one.

  5. AndrewSshi says:

    I should have said “establish a legal framework” rather than “ask permission.”

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    We had a legal framework before 2001. It made torture, cruel treatment, waterboarding and so on illegal. We had judicial review of wiretapping. And so on. We did not go from a failure to specify law to a specification of law. We went from one specification of law to another specification of law–and we did so without legislative or judicial oversight for the most part, and did it instead by executive fiat.

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