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David Bromwich

David Bromwich

Posted: November 29, 2007 12:26 PM

The Torture Compromise of 2007


A friend at a dinner party on the East coast found herself in an argument in which she was the only person opposed to torture. The other invitees, all graduates of favored preparatory schools and Ivy League colleges, worked in the law, investment banking, urban planning and the arts. They agreed that President Bush was incompetent and untrustworthy; but his fundamental mistake about torture had been to go after the law. Torture, they said, cannot be a policy, and a law that permits torture cannot be on the books. What is wanted is a leader who will break the law selectively, in a way we can trust. Torture should be allowable, but only by the right people and for the right reason. To a man and woman, the guests who held this view were supporters of Hillary Clinton.

Go back a year. A scholar-adviser of Democratic candidates was addressing a group of journalists shortly before the 2006 election. Confident of a victory, he rattled off the legislative successes that would come soon after the Democratic majority was in place. Prescription drugs, minimum wage. As the discussion wound down, a deferential question came from a liberal editor at the back of the room. "Can we expect the Democrats to repeal the suspension of habeas corpus and the Military Commissions Act?" The answer was (slowly), No. "Of course, we're all against those things, but they can't be a primary concern to a new majority. The laws should be changed. And things will get better; but I wouldn't expect this to be at the top of the Democratic agenda."

Sherrod Brown confirmed the accuracy of that prediction when he was asked, a few days after the election, whether he would work to repeal the Military Commissions Act, and he replied that he could vote to repeal it but would not sponsor a bill to that effect, because he had other priorities. Hillary Clinton, in turn, vouched for the understanding claimed by her supporters when she gave her reasoning against the confirmation of Michael Mukasey: "In the event we were ever confronted with having to interrogate a detainee with knowledge of an imminent threat to millions of Americans, then the decision to depart from standard international practice must be made by the president, and the president must be held accountable." Careful words. Leave aside the pandering to "the ticking-bomb scenario" by which the doctrine of torture has been sugar-coated to drug the popular mind these past several years. If interrogation is done against the law, and if the interrogation is ordered and superintended by the president alone, what can it mean to hold the president "accountable"?

The Scottish patriot Ross, in act 4 of Macbeth, is given to utter words that now seem piercing:

          Alas, poor country!

Almost afraid to know itself.

We Americans are watching a process which, if allowed to continue to its logical end, will change what it means to be an American. It will change us morally, politically, and socially.

Alfred McCoy, in his extraordinary book A Question of Torture, recounts the history of the techniques designed in the 1950s and 1960s and tested on real- life political subjects through the 1980s, which aim at destroying the identity and breaking down the resistance of suspects. There is a direct progression from American and Canadian state-funded behavioral experiments, to the instruction given by U.S. special forces to the secret police of client states, to our own adoption of the same techniques in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and Iraq. The final step down, in which we do the thing ourselves, may mark a change of kind rather than degree. In any case, the climb out of this limbo of barbarism will not be easy; and a policy of reform can hardly commence until the question is answered: "How came we here?"

Accurate history must include the fact that the earliest large-scale approval of extraordinary renditions occurred in the administration of Bill Clinton. Nor can it fail to remark that the Clinton-Blair NATO war against Serbia was a rehearsal for the war on Iraq. In the same way that many non-political Americans forget (even though they have heard) that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, most liberals have forgotten (though they once heard) that the pretext for the Serbia bombing, the supposed massacre of tens of thousands of Kosovars, was a fabrication thoroughly exposed in the aftermath of that war.

Buried with the motives and causes of our humanitarian wars, lies an elaborate system of excuses and consolations. We give ourselves the right to conduct wars of choice, with destructive effects on others out of all proportion to the risk to ourselves, because we know we are not the sort of people who enjoy wars. So, too, we may reserve the right to torture when torture is really necessary, just because we are not the sort of people who torture. By contrast, the enemy must be fought by tremendous and disproportionate means precisely because the enemy are the sort of people who do torture. Hunted back to its hiding place, this train of thought would perhaps disclose the premise that it is better to be killed by Americans than it is to be killed by other people.

We have not yet come to terms with a fundamental self-deception. Such practices as rendition and torture and the indefinite detention of military-age Arab men, from street sweeps, where no charges are made and no names supplied (a tactic whose large-scale innovation is partly responsible for the reduction of violence in Baghdad)--these practices follow us home. Think of the post-2001 method of corralling anti-war demonstrators by police phalanx into intersection-sized boxes to be moved forward block by block against their will. Or the unwarranted mass arrests of demonstrators in New York City to "protect" the 2004 Republican convention.

Such have been some of our domestic experiments. But we have gone further. In August of this year, a Miami jury convicted of terrorism-conspiracy charges an American citizen, José Padilla, who had been tortured in prison, against whom the evidence was of exactly the character that would have convicted a Miami black man of rape in the year 1927. These things are happening. And yet, in the middle of the longest presidential campaign in our history, the only candidates to speak against the degradation that is now in progress are Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul--both of them ignored or, as often, ridiculed by the mainstream media. Their speech, and the silence or reticence or politic circumlocution of others, is the largest symptom of the silent crisis at home. How can we place ourselves again in the track of constitutional liberty unless we reject all of the persons and all of the means by which it has been betrayed?