Torture is American. That’s the Problem.

Andrew Sullivan’s got another good post up about torture in which he says:

This is how torture is always a fantastic temptation for those in power, even if they first use it out of what they think is necessity or good intentions: it provides a way for them to coerce reality into the shape they desire. This is also why it is so uniquely dangerous. Because it creates a closed circle of untruth, which is then used to justify more torture, which generates more “truth.” [emphasis mine]

He says more than this, but the more he says, I think, is wrong.  Because the argument he’s trying to make is that torture is somehow deeply un-American, that it flies in the face of what we stand for as a country.  I wish with all my heart this were true, but folks, please.  It’s not.

And that’s the problem.

That’s our tragic flaw as a nation.

We have always used violence as a way to coerce reality into the shape we desire.  We’ll march you across the land, trying to force you to accept our ways.  We’ll strip your kids from you and force them to learn only a language you don’t know, and give them a religion that is not yours.  We’ll turn our backs on you as you are raped, repeatedly, and then we’ll take your kids from you.  We’ll beat you until you accept the names we call you.  We’ll hang your brothers and husbands and sons from trees so that you will accept separate but “equal”.  And then we’ll argue that all this is the natural order, just how things are.  God-ordained.  Everyone is fine with it.  Only troublemakers object.  This is just how we do it, to keep order.  How it has to be done.

There could not be anything more American than using violence to coerce reality into the shape we desire.

It’s not just a matter of not knowing enough history to realize that the techniques you’re using were used on our military, not because they’re somehow “okay” but because we wanted to train folks in how to withstand them, it’s the arrogance of not knowing enough history to see that this is the kind of stuff we do all the time, and it never works how we want it to.

There never, ever comes a point where you can beat a person enough to make it okay.

Here’s the thing.  We have been given a few words, at the founding of this country, that it is self-evident that all men are created equal and that we have some inalienable rights–life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  And our struggle as a nation, one we regularly fail at, has been to decide whether that was the truth of who we were or just some propaganda.

I want to be on the side of that being the truth and not just some bullshit we tell ourselves.  But it’s only the truth when we demand it, when we choose it, and when we acknowledge the tragedies that come from acting like those are just some words on paper.  And we have to make it true every day.

If America is The Great Experiment, it’s time to stop running the portion of the experiment where we declare some people outside the scope of the law, not even really people, deserving of everything that they’ve gotten, necessary casualties for our security.  We know that always fails.  Every time we run it, it spreads tragedy and misery and the consequences are far-reaching and always beyond what we’ve anticipated.

It doesn’t take a psychic to see that this is going to be the case again.

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10 thoughts on “Torture is American. That’s the Problem.

  1. But American exceptionalism is as American as violence.

    “Yes, torture is wrong. But we’re Americans. So we never do anything wrong. Therefore we don’t torture, even if we torture, because it’s OK since we’re Americans. See? Besides, evildoers.”

    (If anything, this sort of tortured logic should seek asylum.)

  2. Aunt B., I always enjoy your blog, even if it is about gardening, or extremely-local geography that I will never see. But this post is one that needs to be reprinted in every newspaper and linked from many blogs. Brava.

  3. Great post. I would change one thing: to be violent and to torture is to be human. All human societies, especially those that rise to great power, have been violent to some degree. I also don’t agree with many of my fellow libs when they argue that torture doesn’t work. Of course it works. Of course one can use coercive techniques of many kinds to break prisoners and obtain information.

    The only question to consider here is do we as a nation use such techniques. Personally, I’m against them in general. But the argument that torture won’t work in all cases is as ideologically driven as those who argue that American can’t be made safe without torture.

  4. > Of course it works.

    Before you can say that torture “works”, you have to state what your goals are, what you are trying to accomplish with torture. If you want false confessions, and to waste money and the time of your limited pool of intelligence experts, chasing down things that never happened, then it works.

    From Slacktivist: http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2009/03/stupid-and-evil.html

    “The Bush administration decided to interrogate Abu Zubaida by employing a series of techniques first developed during the medieval inquisitions for the purpose of coercing false confessions. These techniques were further perfected by regimes like the Soviet Union and North Korea in order to ensure that they were ruthlessly effective at manufacturing false confessions.

    This is the sole function of such techniques. This is what they were designed and refined to do and this is all that they were designed and refined to do. This is what torture is for.”

  5. Casey, ideas are (by definition) ideological. I think what you’re trying to say is that the evidence on the efficacy of torture is poorly collected, incompletely disseminated by self-interested parties, and interpreted with bias. It’s a bitched data set, beginning to end.

    I don’t care if it “works.” It’s strange fruit, not fit to eat.

  6. you want false confessions
    ______________________

    That just is not true in all cases. Moreover, note that I am not defending torture. I don’t want U.S. soldiers, CIA agents or any agent of our government waterboarding people.

    But the ancient technique of torture does work and does produce real intelligence along with false confessions.

    I prefer we not do it because I agree with the idea that the technique will eventual be validated for use on American “criminals” as standard operating procedure.

  7. Well said Bridgett. And I don’t want to use it either. Largely because of what eating such tainted “fruit” will do to us as a people.

  8. I hesitate to attack the use of torture on grounds of effectiveness
    But here goes:
    Casey, if torture “worked” why would the Bush administration have needed to propigate a web of lies, willingly deseminated by MSM, about the critical intellegence wrung from high value detanees through (insert euphimism) –?
    Read Glenn Greenwald today.

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