Jewish Journal


June 27, 2008

Torture: What did we know, and when did we know it?



“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes.  The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

These chilling words, written by retired General Antonio Taguba, who had conducted the first official investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal, were placed before the American people on June 18.  The story of torture as US government policy is one of the most shameful episodes in American history, but it is likely to disappear in the heat of the presidential election campaign.

Neither party wants to talk about torture.  Republicans have begun to understand that they face profound moral and legal problems from countenancing torture.  Democrats are scared of appearing weak on terror.  (I expect a nice run of comments below suggesting that by renouncing torture as government policy I am “doing Hizbollah’s work.”)

A murky history serves all purposes.

But of course we always knew.  We knew in the way that we know something without quite acknowledging it to ourselves.

The government and the media protected our sensitivities by softening the words. But we could sense through the foggy language – “enhanced or harsh interrogation techniques” “prisoner abuse” – that the reality was torture.  Even when it was revealed this year that a committee of top Bush administration officials went to Guantanamo to supervise torture, and when the president acknowledged that he knew of and approved of this committee’s work, we were still told by the president a few days later that it was all the responsibility of a few errant soldiers.

Spokespersons muddied the debate with fictional “doomsday scenarios” in which heroic interrogators, 24-like, drew critical information from monstrous terrorists.  We were told that plots had been broken up, even when the evidence of these plots evaporated upon close inspection.  This week, we heard the arrogant testimony of Vice President Cheney’s “legal” advisor, David Addington, and the author of the torture memo, John Yoo, smirking in front of a House committee.  It was hard to watch Yoo refusing to say that the president lacks the authority to bury a person alive or to torture a child in front of a suspect’s parent.  It was clear that neither was much afraid of being held to account, especially by Congress.

Finally, though, we have to ask: who are these people?  How did a small band of fanatics get themselves into position to so pervert America’s ideals?  How did they run roughshod over the protests of those in the military and law enforcement communities who protested, much more than Congress did?  Do these people bear some responsibility for their actions for which they should be held to account?  Do we?

There is something about torture that is profoundly hostile to Jewish tradition.  To me, torture has always gone hand in hand with superstition, the Dark Ages, ignorance, absolute authority, terror, and intolerance.  I see the rack, straining horses, and the other tools of official torture.  I always associate torture with the Inquisition, which in the old phrase, was not good for the Jews.

It was the Enlightenment, the rise of reason and the belief in constitutional authority that created a more tolerant atmosphere for Jews and for many others.  Torture is incompatible with that tradition.

No nation more deeply absorbed the Enlightenment than America.  It is in our Constitution, with its protections for liberties and our separation of powers.  The 8th amendment enshrines it.  It is in the tradition started by George Washington in the Revolution, who ordered that even though the British had badly mistreated American prisoners, all British prisoners were to be treated justly.  I don’t remember anybody calling George weak on terror, even against the British who would have hanged him had they caught him.  No people committed graver sins against humanity than the Germans in World War II, but the USA treated German soldiers with the greatest of humanity.

How did our definition of strength so deteriorate from Washington and Roosevelt to the Bush crowd?  How did humane treatment by the powerful come to be seen as weak, and bullying those who are in our physical control come to be seen as strong?

We’ll find our way back because two centuries of tradition is much stronger than we imagine.  But let’s begin with a real word, and give up the comforting euphemisms.  The word is torture.

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