Seventy percent of Americans believe we should commit crimes against humanity. Not that they would put it that way. They would say something like, in the words of a Pew poll from some months ago, that torturing suspected terrorists is “often justified” (19 percent), “sometimes justified” (35 percent), or “rarely justified” (16 percent). That such beliefs persist, in such numbers, after years of talk about torture, signifies a moral chasm almost too depressing to contemplate.
If hope remains for spanning that chasm, it lies in the possibility—I would even argue the probability—that the better part of those 70 percent are not barbarous, merely benighted. To maintain such hope, it helps to have faith in American ignorance. My faith is pure. I derive immense comfort, for example, from the similarity between the pro-torture 70 percent and the 68 percent of Americans who believe “angels and demons are active in the world.” Surely many of my pro-torture countrymen just need a little more education about torture. Well, a lot more.
There is ample reason to believe they aren’t getting enough to make a difference. As other commentators have described, our educators on such affairs—reporters, editors, producers—have failed us abysmally. They have deferred grossly to hawks (including torture hawks), have dismissed doves as frivolous, have soft-pedaled the worst of tortures as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” have only rarely told us that to torture (or to send captives elsewhere to be tortured, as we still do) is to violate the UN Convention Against Torture (which the United States has adopted as law), and have told us even more rarely that international law regards systematic torture as a crime akin to those for which we executed Nazis at Nuremberg.
I would add one important failing to this list—one almost never discussed, as I found in four years of working on my new book about extraordinary rendition and torture, A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial. To wit: the media almost never describe torture in all its savage detail. They abbreviate, elide, or wholly omit the gruesome specifics that many people need if they are to understand the horror that torture is. The media censor thus, they tell us, because to do otherwise would be too disturbing. Evidently they do not consider that we should be disturbed.
Imagine how few people would have been disturbed by the Holocaust if we had not seen the naked dead heaped in piles higher than the gas chambers that killed them, not read of walking skeletons who were worked until they fell dead in the snow, whereupon their boots were stripped off by other skeletons who might, by their use, survive another week. Only in rare instances has such imagery, visual or verbal, disturbed Americans in the war on terror. (The photos from Abu Ghraib only hinted at the torture that took place there, and the most brutal of the photos were censored by most publications.)
What should we be reading about torture? I venture to reproduce a passage from my book about what it is like to await torture in one of the Egyptian dungeons to which the United States sends its kidnapped victims:
“When pain is about to be endured, it become easier to imagine correctly, which is why awaiting pain is itself an anguish. The anguish will be all the greater if the awaiter lives in a place where torture is common, because he will have heard stories about others’ tortures. He may, for example, have heard of falanga, which is striking the soles of the feet with a rod and which causes an excruciation so permeating that victims have said it is as if someone stuck a knife in their brain stem. The pain may be minutely lessened by arching the feet, but after several blows the feet swell grotesquely and cannot be arched at all. Or the person awaiting torture may have heard of a prisoner who was made to stand barefoot on the edges of jagged cans so that the cans sliced into the soles of his feet until they bled dry. Or he may know of a victim whose hand was placed on a table and smashed methodically with a hammer, first the back of the hand proper, then the knuckles and bones of one finger, then another finger, and so on until no bone was left unshattered. He may also know of a woman who had her head pounded against the corner of a file cabinet until her skull was split and her brain bared. He may know of another woman whose child was dangled out a sixth-story window until she signed whatever her tormentors wanted her to sign. He may have heard of a man who was forced to watch his daughter raped or his father sodomized. Another man will have had ether injected into his scrotum, which feels like lighting a match inside the testicles.
“Another’s pubic hair will have been set on fire. Another will have had cockroaches inserted in his rectum. Another will have shared a cell with a cobra. Someone else will have been made to sit in a chair and have her upper torso shaken back and forth so quickly that she vomited, urinated, and defecated on herself. Another will have endured the same shaking and will have emerged as if lobotomized.
“Another will have had his hands cuffed behind his back, then the cuffs will have been connected to chains, which will have been thrown over a pulley and yanked so that he was lifted into the air until his arms were twisted out of their sockets—torture in its truest sense, since the word is derived from the Latin torquere, ‘to twist.’
“Another will have been dragged on her face over unfinished concrete. Another made to swallow large amounts of salt, then denied water for several days until he nearly died of thirst, then finally given a drink that will have turned out to be urine. Another will have had boiling water thrown on his feet. Another’s feet will have been submerged for hours in ice cubes. There are prisoners who have been soaked so long in vats, with only their heads sticking out, that when they were removed from the liquid their skin fell off and they died slow, painful deaths. There are places where the cat-o’-nine-tails is still used: the prisoner is stripped of his shirt and tied hand and foot to a post, then whipped with a leather scourge that has seven or nine or a dozen ‘tails,’ whose ends are knotted or studded with metal. The first lashes raise horrible welts, and the man will scream ferociously. Subsequent lashes cut through his skin until, slice by slice, his back becomes raw flesh, blood pools at his feet, and his voice fails him. (Thus may have arisen the saying ‘Cat got your tongue?’) If his torture continues, his back will look as if it has been through a meat grinder. If he is lucky, he will pass out.
“In Egypt, beatings, falanga, suspension in the air, and whippings enjoy wide currency. The other above tortures have all been used in recent years, some in Egypt, some in countries not far away. The cat-o’-nine-tails, which may have been named for the cat hide that ancient Egyptians used for the tails, was an official tool of the Egyptian state until the twenty-first century, when it was banned because of international censure. The ban is nominal. All such bans are nominal. The prisoner in an Egyptian cell, waking or sleeping, has much to occupy his mind.”
Exposing Americans to such accounts will not rid us of torture hawks any more than exposure to similar accounts has eliminated Holocaust deniers. But the exposure would make some benighted Americans understand why torture is a crime against humanity—why treating any person with such brutality, whatever he stands accused of, destroys our humanity as surely as it does his.
STEVE HENDRICKS is the author of A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial, just published by W. W. Norton. His Web site is www.SteveHendricks.org.