Americans Learn To Stop Worrying And Love Torture

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 22 2014 @ 12:15pm

12.20.14

Those are tough statistics to absorb:

A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. By a margin of almost 2 to 1 — 59 percent to 31 percent — those interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable intelligence. In general, 58 percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”

This is neoconservatism’s biggest victory since the invasion of Iraq. It means, first of all, a culture immune to fact. The Senate Report concludes from a mountain of CIA documents that no good intelligence was procured through torture – and yet by 2 – 1, Americans prefer to believe a fantasy, peddled only by the torturers themselves. The only fantasy many are prepared to abandon is that the CIA’s program was not somehow “torture”. For that admission, those of us who have tried to exhume and explain the grisly facts can receive some credit. But that credit is instantly wiped out by the fact that even when it is torture, most Americans support it.

In this struggle, we always knew we could never undo the horrors of the past. What we were trying to do was to expose a criminal conspiracy at the heart of the American government to subvert the law and adopt the tactics of totalitarian states toward prisoners – in order to prevent any of it ever happening again. We achieved the one at the expense of the other. No one can seriously doubt that there was a conspiracy, that it involved the knowing subversion of the rule of law, that it committed acts of absolute evil, and that it sunk America’s international reputation to unprecedented lows. Yet a majority of Americans endorse all of it. Because 9/11.

And the staggering levels of support for torture by Christians merely reveals that very few of them are Christians at all. Torture is not a gray area for Christians. It is the darkest stain there is. And the fact that 65 percent of white Catholics back torture tells you a lot about the terribly weak leadership of the bishops on this core and central issue. They were more interested in how to stop women getting contraceptives than standing up and being counted on torture.

Several factors play into this: the shameless and relentless campaign by the torturers to insist they did nothing wrong and even, against all the evidence, “saved lives”; the impact of CIA-blessed popular culture fantasies like “24” or “Zero Dark Thirty” which made torture seem heroic; the fathomless pragmatism of president Obama, utterly in hock to the CIA; the bureaucratic skills and sabotaging of the report by John Brennan; the broader polarization that meant that if one political party endorsed war crimes as a policy, roughly half the population would fall in line; the paranoia and panic that Bush and Cheney spread after 9/11; and the underlying American propensity for rationalizing revenge and violence, especially against anyone with dark skin and a funny name.

As an immigrant to America, this is a bit of a gut-check, to say the least. A reader channels some of what I’m feeling:

I’m a naturalized US citizen, as is my wife and kids. My wife and I were born and raised in Ireland, our kids born in London but we moved to US when they were very young. Even before this thoroughly depressing week of news on torture and politics in general, both my kids (now in college) made uncoordinated separate comments that they are now not sure if they see any future in staying in the US. My son has even opted to go to college in Canada, he feels so strongly about it.

As I read more and more of your coverage on the torture debate and the denials, it is starting to feel like I have been thrown into a dark dank pit and left to rot.

We’ve chosen this country at a moment when it has chosen to embrace torture as an instrument of policy. And that all but inverts the meaning of America.

For me, America has always been about freedom. You can criticize this country all you want, and of course it has its flaws. But that it gives countless millions a new chance at life, that it embraces hard work and new voices, that it values experimentation and exploration, that it churns with an individualism and a vibrancy found almost nowhere else is indisputable. It’s why I fell in love with America almost as soon as I got here.

But the embrace of state-enforced torture against prisoners is not just a flaw in that freedom; it is its utter negation. If a state can torture anyone – including an American citizen like Jose Padilla – limited government is over. Torture gives the torturer the ability to create fact and evidence, to enable further torture and further new “facts” to perpetuate whatever public line a government wants to propagate. It is the most extreme example of how the power of the state can utterly destroy the agency of a human being. It is tyranny in its most concentrated and totalist form. It is the negation of the Constitution. The expulsion of it from Western Europe over the last few centuries was a sine qua non for the emergence of democratic life and culture. And yet America has now reinstated it as a core part of the republic. If we ever allow a Republican to be president again, it could well return.

Despair is one option. But it is a weak one. Becoming or being an American seems to me to be to embrace a struggle, not to bask in perfection. What we have to do now is very hard. It is not to allow this to be put in the rear-view mirror, as president Obama shamelessly wants us to do; it is not to acquiesce to a government which has no effective way to regulate or control its own deep state; it is not to wallow in cheap contempt for most Americans’ comfort with barbarism, as long as it is their barbarism. It is, quite simply, to keep pursuing the facts and to keep pursuing the war criminals. What we need is a careful strategy for first firing and then prosecuting these criminals still walking the halls at Langley. There are no statutes of limitations on these grave crimes against humanity. The only limit to securing justice in this is our patience and fortitude. And we need to have copious supplies of both.