Two months ago we denied the presidency to a man who, for a few votes, forsook a long opposition to torture and pledged his America would continue the barbarity. This month we evict from the White House its resident torturer. These are victories worth celebrating, but they are tempered by having elevated to the White House, as we learn weekly that we have, another torturer.
Mr. Obama will probably not, as Mr. Bush has, send men to overseas dungeons to have their fingernails ripped from the flesh, one by one, with pauses only to revive them after they lose consciousness. He probably will not, as Mr. Bush has, cause men to be strapped to water-soaked mattresses with jumper cables clamped to their testicles and electricity shot through them so that they scream until they lose their voices and we our morality. He probably will not, as Mr. Bush has, oversee the beating of innocent men by American guardsmen until their thigh muscles resemble oatmeal and they die a slow, horrible death. He probably will not, as Mr. Bush has, hold men in desolate Caribbean cages day upon day upon day–2,500 hopeless dawns–with no word from family, hardly any from a lawyer, and no prayer of trial (indeed, of even being charged) until they lose their minds and try to destroy themselves by smashing their heads into concrete walls or strangling themselves with bed sheets. The great likelihood is that Mr. Obama will abandon most of the depravities that our jingoists (still) justify as necessary “so that America might be free.”
For this retreat from pure evil, we are grateful. But we should not be content. For Mr. Obama tells us he will continue to torture the men (and in a few cases women, girls, and boys) whose torture Mr. Bush began. Naturally Mr. Obama has not put the matter so baldly. He has sent his advisors–or allowed them; it is the same–to tell reporters that he is not at all inclined to prosecute the officials behind our torture programs, not those who created or ran Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib or our European “black sites,” not those behind the snatch-and-“render” jobs that damned untried men to foreign torment and, in cases, execution. Indeed, so far is Mr. Obama from prosecuting these criminals that he has asked several to work for him, including CIA torture chiefs Stephen Kappes, who will remain the agency’s second-in-command, and John Brennan, who will be promoted to senior White House counterterrorist. The best we can expect of our new president, his dependents say, is that he will ask a commission of politicians to say whether their colleagues erred during the years of American terror.
Mr. Obama’s course is not mere head-in-the-sand-ism. It is a continuation of the Bush torture. If we do not see it as such, it is because we misunderstand what torture is. Torture is not, as we think, an immediate, excruciating brutality against a captive body, nor two or two hundred such brutalities–that is only torture’s most visible part. Torture is a war on the soul, a fight to extinguish the will, with the body as the field of battle. In torture a man is so bowed before authority that his humanity–his personhood, his individuality–is demolished and the void filled by fear, humiliation, and submission.
Always the torturer plies his trade with an eye to the future. His work must outlive the physical insult, must last as long as he holds power, as long as memory, and must ripple across the soul of the proximate victim to the souls of a million others until all believe they are nothing as to the torturer, their resistance for naught. This is the end of the state torture chamber, whether conceived in the Reichskanzlei or the White House, whether carried out in Cairo or Guantánamo.
Of torture’s persistence the essayist Jean Améry, tortured first by the Gestapo in Belgium and later at Auschwitz, wrote, “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured. . . . Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world; the abomination of annihilation is never extinguished. Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again.”
Améry struggled three decades against his torture before taking the bottle of sleeping pills from which he never woke.
“Torture was for him an interminable death,” wrote the Italian master Primo Levi, who, himself a victim of Auschwitz, contended with his torture four decades before throwing himself off a third-floor landing.
This is the essential point of torture: for the tortured, it never ends. To stop the torture of the body but do no more is to break the fever of a cancer patient but let the cancer devour him from within.
Do not read in these words an excuse to do nothing. Do not believe a tortured creature is beyond salvation. She may never again have faith in creation, but her sufferings can be eased, her life in some measure saved, maybe literally. America can help, but it must out with its crime, for the tortured have a vehement need to have known what was done to them, by whom, and why. A repentant nation of torturers, if its repentance be true, must document its crime, apologize for it, legislate against it, and begin the great work of decades to repair what can be repaired.
The greatest act of repair is the trial and punishment of the criminals: those who ordered the torture, those who implemented it, those who abetted it. The greater the number of senior torturers tried–Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Gonzales, Ms. Rice, Mr. Tenet, and Mr. Rumsfeld for a start–the fewer trials need be held of torture’s thousand grunts and straw bosses. What is vital (I mean the term literally, for lives hang in the balance) is that the tortured have the chance to confront their torturers in court. The victims need the catharsis of seeing the once omnipotent authority brought low, the demi-god made human. Their thirst to be safe again, which we can never fully slake, can be partly relieved by showing that even crimes committed in dark cells in the distant wastelands of empire can be brought to light and the criminals punished.
Where trials are not possible (though in America they are) a victim may find lesser relief in a victim-driven truth-and-reconciliation commission of the kind South Africa used to reckon with Apartheid. What will not do is an inquiry of the kind Mr. Obama is contemplating, a variant of the 9/11 Commission, which will give the victim little public voice, will levy no penalties, and will urge him to “trust the authorities” about crimes that include abuse of the highest authority and savage ruptures of trust.
But even trials will not be enough. The United States, having damaged its victims for life, must also offer them care–medical, psychological, financial–for life. The innocence or guilt of the victims, all of whom Bush has accused of terrorism and some of whom may be guilty, is irrelevant to our duty.
If we repair the individual, we will also repair humanity, which is our burden too since torture, though we try to forget, is a crime against humanity. Millions of Muslim innocents have come to fear our midnight knock, our black hood descending swiftly over their eyes, and they deserve peace from our terror. When we give it to one, we give it to all. And in doing so–here, an argument even an American president might understand–we dissuade a few young men from strapping bombs to their chests.
Mr. Obama sent his advisors, rather than himself, to dangle the line on torture because he worried the waters would roil. They did not. Only a few minnows jumped (in the great pond of the American presidency, even Rachel Maddow is a minnow), while down from the mainstream glided schools of pundits and solons to nibble deferentially at Mr. Obama’s bait and declare the futility, even immorality, of holding the torturers to their crimes. We must look forward, they said, not backward. We cannot undo what has been done. We are a house divided and would be torn asunder in pursuit of justice–the last word said derisively or falsely modified with “pie-in-the-sky.” These are old lies, sung often in American ears. We heard them at the end of Reconstruction, when a victorious North hadn’t the courage to make blacks the equals of whites and postponed the reckoning that the Civil War had implied. The grandchildren of slaves paid for America’s cowardice hour by hour in lynchings and rapes and pulverizing poverty until the reckoning came at last, at Little Rock and Selma and the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. We heard the same lies when Washington stank of Vietnam and Watergate, and Ford pardoned Nixon for declaring himself greater than the law, and the press and parties of power nodded their agreement–thus we still await our reckoning with presidents who would be kings. We should suspect by now that when Americans cry they will be torn asunder by a reckoning with their crimes, they mean they prefer their victims be torn asunder instead.
Mr. Obama is not to blame that men tortured in our gulag are tortured still. But come January 20 the responsibility will be his, ours. To do nothing is not to do no harm. Indeed, it is not even to do nothing. It is a choice, an act, and a monstrous one. It is not equivalent to the acts of Mr. Bush, which will be judged alongside Franco’s or Nero’s. Rather, it is the act of Pilate. Mr. Obama knows, for he has often trod it, that an ugly, ill-defined line separates prudence from cowardice. He knows that in a few great matters of state, the same line separates good from evil. He is stepping across that line. Should he not reverse himself, he condemns hundreds or thousands to unending torture and some–among them a few Amérys and Levis–to death. Their surnames will be Muslim instead of Jewish this time, but in other essentials they are same. They are men, worthy of dignity, even in sin.
STEVE HENDRICKS is the author of The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country. His website is SteveHendricks.org.