When Torture Goes Uncondemned

How fearful and dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!

– Shakespeare, King Lear

What a sad congruence.  It was a stark reminder of what has become of the United States.  It was the day the Senate began the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, the man who single handedly brought the institution of the presidency to its lowest level since the country was founded.  It was the day James E. Mitchell began testifying in a military courtroom at Guantánamo Bay Cuba about torture methods he and a fellow psychologist, John Bruce Jessen, devised to extract information from prisoners of war in United States custody.  The methods of which they were the fathers were a complete betrayal of everything we once thought the United States stood for.

Each of the days of the impeachment hearing were stark reminders of how far the country had fallen from the ideals that its founders had for it at its creation. With each new argument presented by the House Managers, we heard once again how ineptitude, incompetence, corruption, and self-interest motivated the Trump and how he thoroughly intimidated the members of his own party so that none of them had the courage to even hint that there was anything inappropriate in his blatantly corrupt behavior.  Self-interest, rather than the well-being of the nation, was the driving force behind the response of the Republican majority in the senate.  The political welfare and eagerness to remain on the non-existent good side of a corrupt Trump, meant not one Republican senator  was willing to place his or her loyalty to the country, if indeed a senator had such loyalty and many such as Lindsay Graham made it plain they did not, ahead of his or her loyalty to his or her own political future.  The Trump impeachment is a low point in the history of the United States.

And as those proceedings were taking place, a completely different hearing was taking place in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.  Like the one in Washington, it was focused on one of the most dismal times in American history and the nation’s willful walking away from what had been customarily accepted behavior even in times of war. That was the day that James Mitchell, who with another psychologist, John Bruce Jesssen, was the architect of a cruel, and inhuman method of torture, began describing the instruments of torture he created to try to extract information from the men accused of plotting the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The description took place in preliminary proceedings in the trial of the men who were accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

In describing the waterboarding technique that he helped design, he said it was so “gruesome” that some of those observing its imposition were brought to tears.  According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Jessen “would pour water onto a cloth Mitchell held over the prisoner’s mouth and nose. The water pour could last up to 20 seconds, then be paused, then another 20 seconds, paused, then 40 seconds. The subject feels as though he is drowning. . . . The practice is nearly universally condemned as torture.”  During his testimony Mitchell said he would apply the method to other individuals if he thought it necessary but, demonstrating his humanity, he acknowledged that the results repulsed him.

Mitchell justified his role in the torture program explaining that because of the climate of fear that existed in the United States after the 9/11attack, extreme methods to prevent another attack were justified even if they resulted in the “temporary discomfort of terrorists who had voluntarily taken up war against us.”

Joseph Margulies, is a law professor at Cornell University who at one time represented one of the victims of the Mitchell method.  He said the brutal methods employed helped numb America to wrongdoing. In an e mail he said that

“James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen conceived, designed and executed the first officially recognized torture program in U.S. history. It is one thing that they are utterly unapologetic; that is a commentary on them.  But it is something else altogether that so much of the rest of the country is utterly indifferent; that is a commentary on us. . . . Yesterday, we tortured men in cages because we thought they had done something wrong; today, we torture children at the border knowing that they have done no wrong at all.  Do not be seduced by linguistic light footedness and ask whether this really is torture.  I refuse to play that game.”

Although Professor Margulies was speaking of torture, he could have been speaking of the Trump conduct when he said:  “A wrong that escapes public condemnation is no wrong at all.  Worse, it invites not simply repetition, but expansion.”  That is a clear statement of what the future holds for the United States because of the actions of the morally free occupant of the White House and the legacy he is leaving us.


Christopher Brauchli can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com