THE BLOG
12/19/2014 10:05 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Thank You, America

From the report on torture issued last week by the U.S. Senate we can draw three lessons. The first is a terrible one, but the other two are encouraging.

The first thing the report teaches us is that it is indeed possible for the most prominent intelligence agency of the world's most powerful democracy to commit torture on a large scale, to violate the most sacred international conventions, to operate secret prisons in friendly countries, and to lie -- in short to operate illegally for six years running without reporting to its overseers or, what is even worse, by providing doctored reports. The president of the United States was unaware. His vice president, at least for the first year, also seemed to be in the dark. The Department of Justice, the Congress, and the press were systematically deceived. Not to mention what the current CIA director, John Brennan, revealed in his press conference of December 11: badly trained and inexperienced operatives, procedural conflicts with the FBI that could only have hampered the just fight against terrorism, the surreal yet very real risk that a judge might soon be compelled to release back into the wild a jihadist whose crimes were proven by illegal methods -- in other words, a CIA that, in this battle so vital not only for the United States but for the world as a whole, navigated uncharted territory with the most complete and total amateurism. That is an alarming picture. It is the catastrophe scenario that the wildest anti-Americans, the most rapid conspiracy theorists, could not even imagine. And yet it happened.

The good news, by contrast, is that this same democracy has once again demonstrated its extraordinary vitality, its capacity to pull itself together, to confront its crimes, and, in criticizing itself, to rediscover its founding values. Oh, one can expound on the puritanism of an America obsessed with any stain that might tarnish its pastoral vision of itself (Philip Roth). Hard heads can always be found to mock the nostalgia for innocence that is so characteristic of this country (Tocqueville) and whose consequences are often ridiculous or absurd. Be that as it may, there was something beautiful in the spectacle offered to the world by Senator Dianne Feinstein as she read, in a voice full of with emotion, the summary of 500 pages that are so damning for her country. President Obama struck the right tone in the difficult task of upholding his responsibilities as commander in chief, charged with safeguarding the security of his fellow citizens, while ceding no ground on the principles that make up the nation's credo -- principles that are, in the last analysis, America's best weapon against barbarism. The Republicans, for their part, found a voice worthy of their party's great historical consciences in the person of Senator John McCain, who thundered, from the high ground of his own experience as a prisoner of war and victim of torture, that torture is not only sordid but ineffective. America is never so great as in such moments of crisis, doubt, and upset. It is never so strong as when it indulges its taste for the truth. As a citizen of a country that had to confront a similar situation during and after its war in Algeria, a country that spent not years but decades dismantling an official lie and acknowledging the extent of the crimes committed in France's name, I can only salute, with deep humility, the example given here.

Especially since a third thing occurred at the same time and is perhaps the most important of all. We are well aware of the terms of a debate that is as old as torture itself but that has been recently revived by Michael Walzer and other thinkers: Torture is no doubt morally repugnant, the argument goes, but what else can we do when we know that a bomb has been set to explode and we have in custody the one who set it? Well, the most extraordinary thing about this austere report devoid of literary flourishes and embellishments is that it provides the irrefutable retort to the proponents of that theory disguised as an allegory. It does so by demonstrating, with ample evidence, that in the long war waged against terrorism, three things are true. First, the accurate information obtained by the CIA (Bin Laden's location, for example) was acquired without recourse to torture. Second -- consistent with the principle, understood in ancient Greece, that a tortured man loses all sense of reality and will say anything at all -- most of the information obtained through torture proved false, fanciful, or useless. (That is the testimony of Mourad Benchellali, a French citizen confined for two and a half years in Guantanamo.) Third, we had detainees who talked without being tortured but then were tortured anyway in case that might make them say a little more, and we saw them either retreat into silence (witness Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the man behind the bombing of the USS Cole) or retract the information they had previously given and offer contradictory versions (as in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about the aborted attack on London's Heathrow Airport).

Abject and useless. Transforming its victims into flayed meat for no purpose at all. That was Johanna's response to Franz in Sartre's The Condemned of Altona. That was Sartre, Camus, and Malraux against the supporters of "the question." That is the lesson in practical philosophy that, from Capitol Hill, the American people have just given us.