I’ve been reading about the history of torture, including John T. Parry’s new book “Understanding Torture: Law, Violence, and Political Identity.” Parry gives a history of torture in Europe and the United States through the twentieth century, establishing its pervasiveness, and the repetitiveness of the excuses and legalistic machinations used to allow it. Parry sees torture as an absolutely normal activity in our society, but an activity that at least until now was always treated as an aberration, no matter how systemic. Parry even tries to suggest at times that torture is required, necessary, or “essential” for western democracies.
That torture has been pervasive I am persuaded of. That the bizarre torture memos crafted by John Yoo and Jay Bybee and their gang differ less than we might think from previous legal memos, laws, and treaties I accept to some extent. That the US prison and immigration systems fed into the new torture regime is beyond dispute. But Parry could have picked out many times and places to describe that did not use torture to the same extent. The racist and colonialist attitudes that Parry sees as a major support for torture are not constant. The fact that someone can make a twisted legalistic argument for torture does not make it legal beyond serious dispute. The new public acceptance and mainstreaming of torture in the United States has been a dramatic change, at least in awareness; and a dramatic change in a different direction, even as a reaction to this one, is possible.
As Parry notes, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights bans both torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. If we need to clarify that this ban allows no exceptions based on time or place or citizenship or any other factor, then let us clarify that and put it into our Constitution, our treaties, and our statutes, with a requirement to prosecute every act of conspiracy to engage in any such behavior. The world order will not collapse, at least not in a bad way.
But there is a more serious problem, I think. Namely, murder seems to be advancing in the U.S. toolkit as a replacement for torture. Both tools, murder and torture, produce exactly the same amount of useful intelligence. Both tools scare the hell out of people abroad and at home. Both tools serve to teach a domestic audience that certain types of people are not fully people and cannot be dealt with humanely. Both tools help to advance the further stripping away of civil liberties through fear and terror. The goals of torture that the CIA has advanced for decades of eliminating a person’s entire consciousness and identity, the mission of placing barbarians completely under control of the empire, what accomplishes this better than murder?
Look at all the hassle our government has been through trying to legalize and justify torture, not to mention the kidnappings and imprisonments necessary to engage in torture. We’ve seen CIA agents indicted in Italy and prosecutions of high level Americans opened in Spain. Former officials are facing civil suits in the United States for damages. Who needs the headaches? The Director of National Intelligence legalized the assassination of Americans abroad, and by implication any non-Americans as well, by going to Congress in February and announcing that such crimes would henceforth be legal. Easy peasey. No fuss, no muss. And if you want some future al-Libi to tell you that some future Iraq has scary scary weapons, don’t torture him; announce that he manages the stockpile and then put a bullet in his head.
President Obama has ordered the murder of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Like the innocent but tortured Abu Zubayda (innocent at least of any of the crimes he was accused of), Awlaki is now the mastermind terrorist of the universe. And once he’s dead, who’s to say he wasn’t? Who can demand a trail or access to documents? He’ll be dead. See the beauty of it?
If the top mastermind is in Yemen, what the hell are we doing building a quagmire in Afghanistan? Don’t ask. But notice this: we have dramatically increased the use of missile strikes to assassinate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we have increased the use of murderous night-time raids to such an extent that we now kill more civilians in that way than we do with drones. They’re the “wrong people,” or neighbors who came to help, or family members clinging to loved ones. Sometimes they’re young students with their hands tied behind their backs. Accidents will happen. But no U.S. officials’ future book tours are going to be interrupted by protesters, since there’s no torture involved. Civilization is on the march!
DAVID SWANSON is the author of Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union by Seven Stories Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com