Here’s what we learned from the release of the Senate’s report on the CIA’s use of torture: the Agency tortured some people, in the President’s flippant phrase. More than a few people it turns out, though we probably will never know exactly how many. The techniques of torture were brutal, even sadistic. Though, again, the most barbarous measures have been redacted from public disclosure. The CIA learned almost nothing of value from these heinous crimes. More strikingly, the Agency didn’t expect to pry out any fresh intelligence. Instead, what the torturers wanted most desperately was to extract false confessions, writhing accounts of fantastical ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, linking Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, that could be used retroactively to justify a phony war. Thus does one crime feast on another.
But here’s the rub. We still know much less than we know about the government’s torture program. And that’s not just because two-thirds of the CIA report remains sequestered at Langley. Why? To protect sources and methods? Hardly. You can find those easily enough in any book on the Spanish Inquisition. The techniques haven’t changed that much in five centuries. Just add a few jolts of electricity.
While the CIA wants to keep the details of its torture methods cloaked in mystery, the agency was very happy to let the fact that it was torturing prisoners of its covert operations slip out. Partly this was intended to send a message to the agency’s enemies, that terrible torments were going to be inflicted on the bodies and minds of anyone would stood in its way: from Jihadis to Edward Snowden, if they could just lay their hands on him.
But, and here’s where the psychology gets a little tricky, the Agency also wanted the existence of its torture program to leak out to the American public, to whet the growing appetite for vengeance and, perhaps, to distract attention from the agency’s record of massive blunders. And, by all accounts, the ploy worked. In the befouled moral consciousness of post-911, a stout majority of Americans, 59 percent in a recent poll, support the CIA’s torture program. Many of those back the use of torture even though they know it is totally ineffective as a means of intelligence gathering. In other words, they crave blood, and virtually any Muslim’s blood will do, regardless of culpability.
The declassified sections of the CIA report provide a grisly glimpse at the torture of 119 prisoners, many of them kidnapped. The agency now admits that at least 27 of those torture victims were absolutely innocent—though it is important to note that none of the others were proved to have committed crimes more serious than the ones committed against them. One of those guiltless men was tortured to death, that is: murdered by his American captors. In another case, the CIA nabbed the wrong guy off of a busy street, then tortured him until his mind snapped. A bystander was killed during this botched operation.
Aside from a few editorial boards and human rights groups, no one seems too distraught by the ghastly revelations, veiled as they are. Perhaps this is a kind of twisted sign of imperial maturity, the country finally coming to terms with its own true character. Only the most gullible seem to cling to the naïve notion that torture is “un-American.” This is, after all, the nation that has happily funded the School of the Americas for decades, where graduate seminars are offered in the finer points of torture and assassination for the butchers of Latin
Still it’s possible to briefly mourn the loss of American innocence. In his 1987 film Full-Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick devoted the first half of his film to a harrowing depiction of basic training for Marine recruits at Parris Island. Here the young soldiers are forced to endure a sadistic regime of ridicule, humiliation and abuse, aimed at de-humanizing them, stripping them of basic notions of morality and their capacity for human empathy. This kind of official debasement is what it took to compel young Americans in the late 1960s to torch peasant huts, machine-gun farmers in rice paddies or drop napalm on women and children.
These days that dehumanization process takes place in the lecture halls of Yale, Georgetown and the University of Chicago, where the architects of torture and rendition learn the bureaucratic tools and legalisms of their trade. These are the same species of managerial elites who consult the novels of Charles Dickens in order to learn new ways to punish the poor. Austerity, of course, is a kind of system-wide torture by other means.
We now know no one will be held to account for these egregious acts. There will be no naming of names. No disciplinary actions. No terminations. No prosecutions. Indeed, one of the CIA’s most notorious torturers, an officer who fetishized the waterboard, was promoted to lead the Agency’s “global jihad unit.” This is what John Keats might have described as Negative Culpability, where the perpetrators of some of the most vile crimes in American history simply dissolve into the mist of the system.
The logic of impunity for the torturers doesn’t just let government criminals off the hook; it sanctifies the crimes they committed and enshrines torture as a legitimate mechanism to enforce the American imperial enterprise. There can be no regrets when you aspire to dictate your terms to the rest of the world.