December 11, 2005

ON TORTURE, IV: Becoming Monsters, and Ensuring Our Ultimate Defeat

[I wrote the following essay and first published it on September 20, 2004. I offer it again in this series because the two authors whose articles I excerpt here, Darius Rejali and Mark Danner, have done invaluable work on the subject of torture. These particular excerpts set forth some of the reasons why torture represents such an immense evil, and why it must never be accepted or legitimized as a valid means of warfare. I recently found yet another article by Rejali, which offers some crucial further insights and gets us closer to the underlying motives that drive those who endorse and support the use of torture. I'll discuss that article in an upcoming piece. This essay appears as it was originally written, except that I have deleted a two-paragraph parenthetical aside. It distracted from the major points I want to emphasize once again, and it wasn't necessary to the logic of the presentation. In all other respects, the essay is unchanged. This piece was originally titled: "The Case of the Hooded Man: Have the Terrorists Already Won?"]

The Bush administration has committed many far-reaching and momentous errors in its ill-conceived and woefully executed "War on Terror": an apparent inability to understand the nature of our enemy, which has led the administration to pursue and exacerbate a foreign policy which transmutes the United States into Osama bin Laden's "only indispensable ally"; a decision not to pursue our advantage against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan when we might have, but instead to divert crucial resources of intelligence and manpower to Iraq, a completely counterproductive detour in our efforts to improve our national security; a dangerous overstretching of our military capabilities, which makes us vulnerable to our enemies in ways we had not been previously, a weakness which might persist for an indefinite future period; and any number of additional errors, many of them growing out of these more fundamental mistakes.

But one fatal misjudgment has been especially damaging, and its corrosive effects will last for decades. That mistake attacks the meaning and symbolic importance of the United States at the most fundamental level: it undercuts the United States as a force for moral good in the world. The fact that our enemies can now portray us as embodying evil to a significant extent may be the worst legacy any administration has ever left our nation. The fault, the blame, and the cause of this disaster lie squarely with the Bush administration -- and with the President himself.

The most potent symbol of this horrific and grievous error is the story of the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but the full story encompasses much more than this single storyline can convey. Reading a great deal of commentary on this subject reveals to me that many people still do not grasp some essentials of the subject matter involved, so a brief review of those basics is necessary.

I would prefer to begin with the moral argument, but I will not. I'll come back to the moral considerations in the middle and final parts of this essay. Instead, let's begin with one single overwhelmingly significant fact, one which far too many people seem to be entirely ignorant of: even if one constructed an argument to make torture "acceptable" given certain exigent circumstances, the simple fact is that torture does not work. In a saner, more humane world, the fact that it does not work would end the argument. But our world is far from sane at the moment; war causes humanity to lose sight of the fundamentals of reasoning, and great fear leads people to abandon what they know to be right when they are not so threatened.

Darius Rejali first learned about torture growing up in Iran, "under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, whose government relied on Savak, a secret intelligence agency formed with the help of the CIA in 1957." He researched modern torture for 20 years, and studied "stealthy" methods of torture -- "those that leave few visible marks (i.e., blood or scars) on the victim. I noticed that stealthy techniques appeared more often in the wars of democracies than in those of dictatorships."

In a lengthy article published by Salon in June of this year, Rejali wrote:
Few things give a rush quite like having unlimited power over another human being. A sure sign the rush is coming is pasty saliva and a strange taste in one's mouth, according to a French soldier attached to a torture unit in Algeria. That powerful rush can be seen on the faces of some of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, a rush that undoubtedly changed them forever. The history of slavery tells us that one can't feel such a rush without being corrupted by it. And the history of modern torture tells us that governments can't license this corruption -- even in the cause of spreading democracy -- without reducing the quality of their intelligence, compromising their allies and damaging their military. ...

My research shows, however, that torture during interrogations rarely yields better information than traditional human intelligence, partly because no one has figured out a precise, reliable way to break human beings or any adequate method to evaluate whether what prisoners say when they do talk is true. Nor can torture be done in a professional way -- anyone who tortures is necessarily corrupted by the experience and is often turned into a sadist. The psychic damage to the soldiers who conducted the torture at Abu Ghraib is likely to be permanent.

What's more, a democracy that legalizes the use of torture in its desperation to gain information loses something more important -- the trust of its people, the foundation of a democracy. In Iraq, the United States was desperate as it sought to find and stop those responsible for the insurgency. When "intelligence" was not forthcoming from prisoners, senior U.S. Army officials decided to turn over interrogation to military intelligence personnel, who were instructed to use aggressive, even brutal techniques. These methods were rationalized as necessary in the overall global war on terrorism, but as my research has shown, institutionalizing torture in such a manner only ends up destroying all the individuals involved -- and the military and political goals of the government in whose name torture is carried out.
Rejali then turns to the question of torture's "utility":
Aside from its devastating effects and the wasted time and resources, does torture actually work? Organizations can certainly use torture to intimidate prisoners and to produce confessions (many of which turn out to be false). But the real question is whether organizations can apply torture scientifically and professionally to produce true information. Does this method yield better results than others at an army's disposal? The history of torture demonstrates that it does not -- whether it is stealthy or not.
He goes through a number of details to demonstrate the grounds for his conclusion. I could hardly bear to read it and will not reproduce it here, except for this excerpt:
As a victim feels less pain, torturers have to push harder, using more severe methods to overtake the victim's maximal pain threshold. And because victims experience different types of pain, torturers have to use a scattershot approach. No matter how professional torturers may think they are, they have no choice but behaving like sadists. Even though many of the interrogators at Abu Ghraib were using techniques approved by their superiors, it is no surprise that they went far beyond these techniques, trying anything that worked.

Competition among torturers also drives brutality. As one torturer put it, each interrogator "thinks he is going to get the information at any minute and takes good care not to let the bird go to the next chap after he's softened him up nicely, when of course the other chap would get the honor and glory of it." Torture, as New York University economist Leonard Wantchekon has said, is a zero-sum game.
Even our former enemies understood this point:
The interrogation manual of Japanese fascists put it this way: "Care must be exercised when making use of rebukes, invectives or torture as it will result in his telling falsehoods and making a fool of you." Torture "is only to be used when everything else has failed as it is the most clumsy [method]."
Lest you think this is merely an academic discussion, Rejali points out that "good intelligence requires humans willing to trust government enough to work with it." This is a point that the insurgents in Iraq understand, but we clearly do not -- and the results have been disastrous, as all the world is now witnessing every day:
Even guerrillas know this truth. An internal report from Iraq, quoted by Seymour Hersh in the May 24 New Yorker, states that the insurgents have depended mainly on "painstaking surveillance and reconnaissance" by the Iraqi police force, "which is rife with sympathy for the insurgents" and "pro-insurgent individuals working within the [Coalition Provisional Authority's] so-called Green Zone." Not surprisingly, the insurgents' "strategic and operational intelligence has proven to be quite good."
With regard to the "ticking time bomb" scenario, so beloved of torture's advocates [and which I discussed in Part I of this series, where I pointed out its fundamental errors], Rejali writes:
What if time is short, as with a "ticking bomb"? Does torture offer a shortcut? Real torture -- not the stuff of television -- takes days, if not weeks. Even torturers know this. There are three things that limit torture's value in this context.
Those "three things" are the medical limit, the resource limit, and the psychological limit. Consult the article for details.

And here is the most crucial, overarching point:
Abu Ghraib should teach us what America's founders would have told us: that we are our own worst enemy. Leaders of dictatorships sign on to the Geneva Conventions only out of prudential fear of what other states might do to their POWs. Leaders of democracies sign on to them because they understand the evil that lurks in the heart of all human beings. Those who choose to abide by the rules do so not simply to restrain others but to restrain themselves.

Unrestrained power leaves behind a legacy of destruction that takes generations to undo. Torture, like incest, is the gift that keeps on giving. Democratic societies that legalized torture or tried to constrain its use have come to two ends. Some, like the Greeks and Romans, created tiered societies where authorities could torture whole classes of people (slaves or lesser citizens) and those who were beyond torture. Others, like the Italian city-states, were unable to prevent the executive branch from torturing more and more citizens and in the end fell to its dictatorial power.
The second part of Rejali's article deals with the Battle of Algiers, an example often cited to support the use of torture. However, as Rejali writes, the real lesson lies in the other direction:
The real significance of the Battle of Algiers, however, is the startling justification of torture by a democratic state. Algerian archives are now open, and many French torturers wrote their autobiographies in the 1990s. The story they tell will not comfort generals who tell self-serving stories of torture's success. In fact, the battle shows the devastating consequences of torture for any democracy foolish enough to institutionalize it.
Part II of the article contains the details of the prohibitively high costs of any government sanction of torture. Moreover, as Rejali also explains, France won the Battle of Algiers "primarily through force, not by superior intelligence gathered through torture."

People often forget the other effects of torture, the effects that are felt at home, away from where the war is taking place:
Those who authorize torture need to remember that it isn't something that simply happens in some other country. Soldiers trained in stealthy techniques of torture take these techniques back into civilian life as policemen and private security guards. It takes years to discover the effects of having tortured. Americans' use of electric torture in Vietnam appeared in Arkansas prisons in the 1960s and in Chicago squad rooms in the 1970s and 1980s.

Likewise, the excruciating water tortures U.S. soldiers used in the Spanish-American War appeared in American policing in the next two decades. For those who had been tortured, it was small comfort when, on Memorial Day 1902, President Roosevelt regretted the "few acts of cruelty" American troops had performed.

It is easy to criticize the leaders and torture apologists who misled us and continue to do so. What is harder is to determine how to repair the damage. One crazy man can block the well, but it takes the whole village to remove the stone, an Iranian proverb says.
[I have written about the neglected part of this story -- the common use of torture and abuse in the prison system here in the United States -- in some detail. I will be reposting those essays here in the near future.]


The reason I revisit this subject -- one I first discussed at length well over a year ago -- is because Rejali's article was written before the various governmental investigations into the Abu Ghraib story were completed. Now that those investigations are over, and their reports duly issued, Mark Danner has written an extensive article for The New York Review of Books surveying the findings, and their meaning. I strongly recommend that you read Danner's article (as well as both parts of Rejali's), but here are a few significant excerpts:
They have long since taken their place in the gallery of branded images, as readily recognizable in much of the world as Marilyn struggling with her billowing dress or Michael dunking his basketball: Hooded Man, a dark-caped figure tottering on a box, supplicant arms outstretched, wires trailing from his fingers; and Leashed Man, face convulsed in humiliation above his leather collar, naked body twisted at the feet of the American female in camouflage pants who gazes down at him without expression, holding the leash casually in hand. The ubiquity of these images in much of the world suggests not only their potency but their usefulness and their adaptability. For the first of the many realities illuminated by the Global War on Terror--or the GWOT, as the authors of the latest reports listed here designate it--is the indisputable fact that much of the world sees America rather differently from the way Americans see themselves.

Out of the interlocking scandals and controversies symbolized by Hooded Man and Leashed Man, the pyramids of naked bodies, the snarling dogs, and all the rest, and known to the world by the collective name of Abu Ghraib, one can extract two "master narratives," both dependent on the power and mutability of the images themselves. The first is that of President Bush, who presented the photographs as depicting "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops, who dishonored our country and disregarded our values"--behavior that, the President insisted, "does not represent America." And the aberrant, outlandish character of what the photographs show--the nudity, the sadism, the pornographic imagery--seemed to support this "few bad apples" argument, long the classic defense of states accused of torture.

The facts, however, almost from day one, did not.

The second "master narrative" of Abu Ghraib is that of the Muslim preacher Sheik Mohammed Bashir, quoted above, and many other Arabs and Muslims who point to the scandal's images as perfect symbols of the subjugation and degradation that the American occupiers have inflicted on Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. In this sense the Hooded Man and the Leashed Man fill a need, serving as powerful brand images advertising a preexisting product.
Danner reminds us of the manner in which many of the Iraqis imprisoned in Abu Ghraib were captured -- and military personnel themselves admit that as many as 85% to 90% of the prisoners had no or severely limited intelligence value:
Representatives of the Red Cross, who visited Abu Graib nearly thirty times in this period, offered a more vivid account of "cordon and capture":

"Arresting authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property. They arrested suspects, tying their hands in the back with flexi-cuffs, hooding them, and taking them away. Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people. Treatment often included pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles. Individuals were often led away in whatever they happened to be wearing at the time of arrest--sometimes in pyjamas or underwear...."
Danner also explains how the Abu Ghraib story represents a failure at the most fundamental level:
The system was self-defeating and, not surprisingly, "interrogation operations in Abu Ghraib suffered from the effects of a broken detention operations system." Indeed, these reports are full of "broken systems" and "under-resourced" commands, from Abu Ghraib itself, a besieged, sweltering, stinking hell-hole under daily mortar attack that lacked interpreters, interrogators, guards, detainee uniforms, and just about everything else, including edible food, and that, at its height, was staggering under an impossible prisoner-to-guard ratio of seventy-five to one, all the way up to the command staff of Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, which lacked, among other vital resources, two thirds of its assigned officers. In Iraq, as the Schlesinger report puts it bluntly, "there was not only a failure to plan for a major insurgency, but also to quickly and adequately adapt to the insurgency that followed after major combat operations." And though they don't say so explicitly, it is clear that the writers of these reports put much of the blame for this not on the commanders on the ground but on the political leadership in Washington, who, rather than pay the political cost of admitting the need for more troops--admitting, that is, that they had made mistakes in planning for the war and in selling it to the public--decided to "tough it out," at the expense of the men and women in the field and, ultimately, the Iraqis they had been sent to "liberate."
Danner also graphically explains the various methods of "water-boarding" (since we still do not know exactly which method Americans might have used). I could barely read the descriptions, and I think you will find them very difficult to take in as well, because they are so horrifying. And remember Rejali's point: the people who used such techniques will, at some point, return to civilian life -- here in the United States.

Danner additionally identifies the bureaucratic maneuvers by means of which the Bush administration has so far avoided having blame placed where it squarely belongs -- on the shoulders of the political leaders in Washington:
With no fear of a full, top-to-bottom investigation from a Congress that is firmly in Republican hands, administration officials, and particularly those at the Department of Defense, have managed to orchestrate a slowly unfolding series of inquiries, almost all of them carried out within the military by officers who by definition can only direct their gaze down the chain of command, not up it, and who are each empowered to examine only a limited and precisely defined number of links in the chain that connects the highest levels of the government to what happened on the ground in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in the war on terror. Thus General Taguba investigated the military police, General Paul Mikolashek, as the Army's inspector general, reported on detention procedures, General Fay on military intelligence, and so on.
By means of all the strategems employed by the Bush administration to minimize and explain away any possible damage, the most serious casualty is the question that still has yet to be seriously addressed:
What has been on trial, thus far, however is the acts depicted in the photographs and these acts, while no doubt constituting abuse, have been carefully insulated from any charge that they represent, or derived from, US policy--a policy that permits torture. Thus far, in the United States at least, there has been relatively little discussion about torture and whether the agents of the US government should be practicing it.
But the most disturbing result of all this, and ultimately the most damaging, is the one identified by Danner at the end of his article:
Meantime the Hooded Man has taken his place among the symbols calling forth, in some parts of the world, a certain image of the United States and what it stands for. Sheik Bashir, who said of the occupying soldiers that "no one can punish them, whether in our country or their country," has thus far been proved right. Only those at the lowest rung of the ladder have so far been punished and the matter of what was actually happening within the interrogation rooms of Abu Ghraib, not to mention in the secret detention centers of the CIA, has hardly been debated. The Iraqis know this, even if many Americans do not. Meanwhile the political damage to US interests in the world has been very great. ...

It has become a cliche of the Global War on Terror--the GWOT, as these reports style it--that at a certain point, if the United States betrays its fundamental principles in the cause of fighting terror, then "the terrorists will have won." The image of the Hooded Man, now known the world over, raises a stark question: Is it possible that that moment of defeat could come and go, and we will never know it?
In the first part of this series, I wrote:
Please remember these sentences [from Hannah Arendt]: "Torture, to be sure, is an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus; it is used every day to make people talk. This type of torture, since it pursues a definite, rational aim, has certain limitations: either the prisoner talks within a certain time, or he is killed." An essential feature. Do you truly want to endorse torture as a legitimate government policy -- and endorse "an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus" -- and possibly open the door, even by just the smallest amount, to the further horrors described by Arendt?

I would urge all those who advocate the legitimated use of torture as official government policy to consider these points -- and, much more importantly, to read all of Arendt's profoundly important book, and then to rethink their views on this subject. I would deeply, deeply hope that they would alter their views. You may view this step that you advocate as only a very small one -- but it is by means of such small steps that one descends into the deepest pit of hell.

One final personal comment. The fact that we have been having this discussion at all is the most disturbing aspect of this entire matter to me, particularly in light of the lessons of the twentieth century and its almost nonstop train of horrors -- lessons which we appear to be in peril of forgetting, if indeed we ever learned them at all. And it suggests to me that we may be in even greater danger than I had thought.

But I still hope to be proven wrong, with every atom of my being.
The events that have transpired since I wrote those words can only lead me to think that the danger is much greater than even I had thought.

And if Bush is reelected, and if he should launch another war, or if -- God forbid -- there is another major terrorist attack here in the United States, I am no longer confident that we would choose not to go down the path outlined in articles such as those I have discussed above. In such a case, I fear my remaining hope might grow very, very faint.

Nonetheless, I will still hope to be proven wrong. God, and what I still think is the basic decency of the American people, willing, I shall be.