Editor’s Note: Out of the Past

Washing Hands of Torture

image by Adam Niklewicz / www.illustratorusa.com

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Clear your mind of images fed to you by fiction—of ticking time bombs and last-minute rescues, of “evil-doers” and misunderstood heroes. Then close your eyes and consider, just for moment, what it would have been like to be a detainee at Guantánamo Bay during the Bush years.

Envision being shackled naked, on your knees, hands pulled behind your back and over your head for the length of a transcontinental flight. Once you wrap your brain around that level of discomfort, multiply it by weeks and imagine your back muscles knotted into never-ending spasms, your legs and wrists swollen and blistered, skin on fire.

When released from that position, you are strapped to a tilting bed and a cloth is placed over your face. Water is poured on the cloth until it is saturated. You are suffocated for minutes on end, convinced that death is imminent. Just short of passing out, you are allowed to breathe. You vomit, then wait for it to happen again, as many as six times a day, for days on end.

No one knows where you are. You see no one but your masked interrogators. It doesn’t matter whether you actually know anything or committed a crime—you’re not likely to see the inside of a courtroom. And no matter what truths or lies you think to tell, the torment endures with no end in sight.

It’s a distasteful psychological exercise, but I implore you to try it. Because, as Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick wrote on April 25, “America seems to have lost its capacity to be truly shocked by anything America might do.

“[The images from Abu Ghraib] are no longer postcards from the unthinkable. They are what we have become.”

 

One of the many absurd objections thrown around when President Obama ordered the release of Justice Department torture memos in mid-April was that the world didn’t know the Bush Administration had decided to “take the gloves off” and throw human rights to the dogs. More confounding was Obama’s disappointing decision a month later to block the release of photos documenting the abuse of prisoners abroad by U.S. military personnel, arguing the images could “further inflame anti-American opinion.”

As the Nation reminded readers on February 9, Obama promised voters before the election that he would give them “a president who has taught the Constitution and believes in the Constitution and will obey the Constitution of the United States of America.” His fallback position since being inaugurated—that “when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we did wrong in the past”—makes a mockery of that promise. It also threatens to damage Obama’s credibility and the effectiveness of his State Department.

The reality is that since early 2006, Bush’s minions practiced their dark magic openly, brazenly violating the Eighth Amendment and international law. In doing so, they accomplished what seemed impossible in the months following 9/11. As Miller-McCune editor in chief John Mecklin noted in August 2008, they convinced “large swaths of humanity that al-Qaeda’s mass murderers are morally superior to the United States government.”

News organizations large and small documented the demise and continue to do commendable work ferreting out the horrific details of America’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Consider the McClatchy newspaper series in June 2008, based on an eight-month investigation, that concluded abuse of detainees was “systematic” and “routine,” and read like a prologue to 1984. As reporter Mark Danner wrote in the New York Review of Books on April 30: “Thanks especially to path-breaking reporting by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, to the historical work of [historian] Alfred W. McCoy, and now to a partially released report by the Senate Armed Services Committee and a series of leaked and declassified memos by the Bush Justice Department,” we have a good idea what happened at U.S. military prisons and CIA black sites.

Danner goes on to write about the April release of a confidential report on the treatment of 14 “high-value detainees” in CIA detention, which was drafted by the International Committee of the Red Cross and sent to government officials in February 2007. The nonpartisan organization concludes that the aforementioned prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay were subject to “torture and/or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”

The methods used included suffocation by water; prolonged stress positions, which involved standing “naked, held with arms extended and chained above the head” for up to three days; while hung from the ceiling, toilet access was sometimes denied, forcing prisoners to defecate and urinate on themselves; collars were held around detainees’ necks and used to forcefully bang their heads against the wall. Inmates were confined in a coffinlike box; routinely deprived of sleep for days at a time; and told their family members would be beaten or killed. This is an abbreviated list.

 

There are various theories about how the Bush administration managed to get away with these high crimes. On May 11, psychologist Roy Eidelson distilled them on Common Dreams.org. “In sum, this seemingly successful campaign of mass persuasion depended upon convincing the public to believe five things: 1) Our country is in great danger, 2) Torture is the only thing that can keep us safe, 3) The people we torture are monstrous wrongdoers, 4) Our decision to torture is moral and for the greater good, and 5) Critics of our torture policy should not be trusted.”

I’m guessing—hoping—that fewer and fewer Americans are susceptible to this jingoistic fear-mongering, especially those who are reading coverage in magazines like Utne Reader. Which raises these questions: Why aren’t we marching in the streets? How can we rest until the people responsible for these atrocities are locked behind bars?

I don’t have the answers. I do know, however, that those who have a platform from which to address this issue are morally obligated to do so. I’m also convinced President Obama must lead the way.

Obama apologists (and on other matters I plead guilty to being a member of this group) argue that the president’s lack of public passion on torture is further evidence of his much-heralded pragmatism.

Pragmatism is not a substitute for philosophical rigor, however, and it cannot be used as an excuse to ignore the past. As Mark Danner said May 1 during a roundtable discussion on Bill Moyers Journal, we must “educate the country, not only about what was done, but was lost.” This is vital “because of what’s going to happen after another attack. And we have to assume there will be another attack.”

Obama’s resistance to this line of thinking makes sense to a point. If his administration goes it alone, bare-knuckling the CIA, or the military, or, for that matter, the talking heads on Fox News, it will likely exacerbate the very sort of divisiveness and governmental gridlock he’s working so hard to avoid. The president doesn’t need to do that, though. He has the skills and sensibilities to create moral momentum in the court of public opinion. That’s why he won.

Exhibit A is candidate Obama’s March 2008 speech on race:

“Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time,” he told an audience in Philadelphia. “And yet words on a parchment would not be enough . . . What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part—through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk—to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”

This sort of soaring rhetoric, built on a historical foundation and delivered fearlessly, has been unnecessarily rationed during Obama’s freshman year. It’s as if he doesn’t quite believe he won the election. Well, he did. And when it comes to the defense of America’s Constitution and the human rights of the world’s citizens, it’s time he started acting like it.