“We need to look forward, as opposed to looking backward,” President-elect Obama said on ABC News when asked about prosecuting Bush officials for torture and warrantless wiretapping. “When it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.” Four years later, it should be clear to anyone that for the Obama administration, “getting things right” means expanding, legalizing and normalizing the same national security policies they weren’t going to investigate.
Not long before last week’s 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a Guardian/BBC Arabic report was released documenting the torture centers and death squads run by the CIA and US military as part of “counterinsurgency” in Iraq. The report highlighted the role of James Steele, a retired colonel who’d helped implement these polices in the US proxy wars against leftist guerillas in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Steele was chosen by the Bush administration to organize Shia militias who could kill or imprison anyone as a “terror suspect”. At its height, the terror regime claimed 3,000 victims a month. Apart from Steele, the report also directly implicates General David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The invasion and resulting sectarian conflict have so far killed 1.4 million Iraqis (This strategy is still being used to disastrous effect in Afghanistan).
The documentary details how, with the Bush administration’s full knowledge and support, detainees were held without charge and tortured with electroshocks, power drills, boiling water, rape, and so on. These and other “techniques”, besides being some of the most savage treatment imaginable, are considered war crimes by both US and international law. That they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN Convention against Torture, and other treaties the US has signed is not a matter of dispute. An estimated 100 detainees were killed in US hands, but the Bush torture regime extended from the notorious prisons at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib to many other sites in 54 countries (including Qaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria).
A couple of points are worth thinking about. For one, the argument put forth by President Obama and others for granting legal immunity to the Bush administration and CIA torturers is basically that prosecution would be disruptive at a time when we must all “resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.” True to its word, the Obama administration has killed every probe into Bush-era torture, both domestically and internationally. But their argument assumes that it’s up to Obama to decide if the United States will try Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney for war crimes. Article 7 of the UN Convention against Torture compels the US to do so, no matter which way the President wants to look. And besides the principle of justice, there’s also the practical matter that exempting a group of people from the law encourages lawlessness. Why shouldn’t elites abuse their power if they won’t be held responsible for it?
Let’s say the Obama administration is really Looking Forward Not Backward. Surely it wouldn’t have prosecuted 7 whistleblowers, more than twice the total for all previous administrations, under the Espionage Act? The real policy is one of immunity for top government officials and investment bankers, and the most ruthless retribution for dissent. Why else would the only officer to be tried in connection with CIA torture be John Kiriakou, the man who blew the whistle on it? A lot of what we know about Bush-era crimes, including the death squads and torture militias in Iraq, was found in memos leaked to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning. For exposing government wrongdoing, Obama has punished Manning by making an example of him.
He was held for over 1,000 days without trial, much of that time in solitary confinement, and now faces charges of “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda. The UN’s special rapporteur on torture declared that Manning’s treatment at the hands of the US government has been “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. Meanwhile, Obama picked his “Assassination Czar” John Brennan to head the CIA, the agency where Brennan had embraced torture under Bush. And though the administration claims it ended extraordinary rendition of detainees to black sites for torture, it didn’t.
It seems that if you ask the Democratic Party and President Obama, it’s not torture and mass murder that threaten our safety. It’s the people who dare to expose them. And polls of liberals and Democrats repeatedly show that when both parties support a policy that used to be controversial, people who identify with those parties are far more likely to support it as well.
And since that policy can no longer be a point of partisan bickering, it’s barely covered in the media and drops out of the mainstream debate completely. This has now happened with the issue of torture. Back in 2007, Slavoj Žižek wrote that “a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is ‘dogmatically’ clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.” The fact that US-run torture has employed, and likely still employs, rape and sexual abuse only drives this point home further.
Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.
This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some have claimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.
The controversy around Zero Dark Thirty brings up a larger question about how we can criticize the War on Terror without accepting its basic premises, like “torture is more excusable if it works.” My own view is that we can’t limit ourselves to abstract arguments about right and wrong. We have to look at the cases to judge whether these illegal and unethical practices were even necessary to fulfill their own stated goals. In the case of the Bin Laden raid, it’s clear that they were not.
As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.” Of course, we should insist that torture is barbaric. But to dismiss the question of results completely is to radically misjudge what we’re up against.
The War on Terror reopened our public debate about torture. Over a decade later, the debate has been won – for the first time since the Middle Ages – by authoritarians in both parties. Their gains will be institutionalized for at least a generation, and they aren’t resting on their laurels. The age of Obama has already turned the worst excesses of the Bush years into the only game in town.