The Surly Bartender asserts: The United States of America has routinely participated in the widespread torture of human beings for several years. There are individuals in the Bush administration that knowingly ordered this torture and likely order it still. It is not the work of rogue elements. It is not localized. It is not the exception, it is the rule. And as the Bush Administration uses all the tricks left in its bottomless bag of feckless evil to immunize itself against future prosecution, we need to look levelly at what has been done to human beings, many of them utterly innocent, and none of them deserving of a barbarism better left in the shadows of our collectively embarrassing history.
To have a discussion about such weighty matters, we need to define our terms, be willing to see the implications of historical and circumstantial evidence and be willing to employ cold hard gin joint logic. If you’re reading this in a bar right now, order yourself a whiskey. If your not, then get thee to your local tavern immediately.
The terms that need explication are “torture” and “widespread.” The government of the United States has spent years torturing the English language to maintain a syntactic defense of practices that most of the world has long since consigned to the dark ages. The practices, sanitized for your protection, are generally referred to as “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.”
While this whole smorgasbord of enhanced interrogation techniques, including inducing hypothermia, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, religious humiliation, stress positions that can cause – according to Alfred McCoy, author of “A Question of Torture” – “…excruciating pain, as ankles double in size, skin become tense and intensely painful, blisters erupt oozing watery serum, heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions deepen,” one almost marvels at how the public dialogue has revolved around whether the particular act of waterboarding is torture. For FUCK’S SAKE, OF COURSE ITS TORTURE!!! And the Bush administration’s pathetic defense of the practice has been a) we’ve only done it a few times, b) its really not that bad, and c) tap tap tap on the shoulder – “Hey, Look Over There!” Followed by the cartoony beating of bongos simulating racing feet and Pweeeeeuuummmm – He’s Gone!
So long as we focus on one particular pickaxe in the torturer’s medical kit, we miss the larger picture. The program of enhanced interrogation technique in totality is illegal and immoral. It is so deemed by US and international law and history will judge us on its continued use regardless of the rationales provided by the presidential organ grinder and his coterie of innocence touting chimps.
How widespread is its use? This is difficult to determine as evidence of its practice has been hidden, classified, destroyed and downplayed. We are asked to trust this uniquely untrustworthy administration that their use of interrogation techniques has been judicious and ethical. (Sorry guys, the train of my trust headed east years ago, so you’re going to have to do better than that to convince me that the shit I smell around the corner is a mud pile rather than a mountain.)
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I charge that the very nature of torture and the historical circumstances in which it has been employed suggest that the vast majority of “illegal enemy combatants” you currently hold have been subject to practices that are tantamount to torture at some point of their captivity. You deny them counsel. You deny them the bedrock right of habeas corpus. You keep them hidden – sometimes in solitary confinement for periods of years – and then ask us to believe that you are willingly applying the terms of the Geneva Convention? Why on earth would we believe that, other than preserving our own ability to claim at a time many years hence that we were just fools of powerful men? That didn’t, and shouldn’t have, worked for the nation of Germany in the wake of World War II and it won’t and shouldn’t for us.
We are further constrained in making this judgment by a singularly muddied concept – that torture doesn’t work. Those on the right use this canard to argue that the United States government would never engage in torture, not only because it is immoral, but because it would produce no serviceable results. Those on the left argue that we shouldn’t be engaging in torture, as it is immoral and destructive of our larger political goals.
But the tragic conclusion is that torture can work very well, but in order for it to accomplish its ends, it must, by logic and reason, be widespread.
The argument against the efficacy of torture suggests that the victim of torture will say anything to his torturer. Sure, you can’t trust that any given victim will be telling the truth. So, think this through: if a victim of torture will say anything, will say a thousand things how can you trust anything that he might say?
The truth is that you can’t. And herein lays a great shame and tragedy. The way that you can trust the veracity of victims of torture is to torture lots of them.
Presume that you have one hundred detainees and you believe that some of them are plotting against you. If you torture one, he will spin a tale as wild as the provocations put upon him. If you threaten his life, if you bring him to the abyss, if you threaten the lives of his family, if you smash his testicles or rape his wife, if you make him stand in a stress position for 48 hours, if you waterboard him, if you chain him to the floor in a near freezing cell and douse him with near freezing water, he will tell you that his neighbor – or his cousin – or his brother, or he himself is plotting to do whatever it is that you fear.
In and of itself, that is worthless as intelligence. He is lying about it all, or most of it all.
You know that.
But, if you torture 10 men or 100 men or 1000 men, and 99% of their stories are incongruous, you know where they are lying – but if two men of that hundred spill the same story in the course of their torture, then you know you have actionable intelligence.
If Mohammed and Ishmael – two men out of the entire detention facility tell you in the course of their trials that Ibn Ali has contacts in Istanbul and will be meeting with them on Friday at noon in the Ambassador Hotel, then you can separate the wheat from the chaff. You’ve got your information, and now you can act. You’ve learned of a threat – and you’ve learned that your methods are sound. Sound methods breed themselves and it is time to start the process again as you send your operatives to Cell Block Next.
Now, of course, by getting that information you’ve likely tortured innocent men. But as the adage goes, you’ve gotta crush a few huevos to make an omelet.
To believe that the government of the United States is only guilty of what they’ve been presently charged is historically irresponsible. Any study of the history of state power suggests that we should suspect claims of innocence or rationalizations of legality by men who believe that they must walk in the shadows of morality to serve a higher purpose.
So far this government has had to confess, under duress no greater than the weight of a few brave whistle blowers and a lap dog media that they may or may not have bent the rules with a few high value detainees. But what they’ve done, and I’d bank my historian’s credibility on this, has been to systematically torture an uncounted number of human beings in a misguided belief that they are protecting the nation by euthanizing its soul.
The ticking time bomb is a powerful motivator, but we’ve been a nation of constitutional laws for longer than any nation in the history of the world. To turn our heads from an evil that we can only assume is being perpetrated – to turn our eyes from the rules laid out by the Founders and men better than those currently holding the bullwhip – is far more dangerous than anything that Mohammed or Ibn Ali or Osama could bring to the table.
When the time comes to answer for these sins, the volk might be able to tell Robert Klein that they were at the movies, but they won’t be able to tell that to God.
Or the Surly Bartender.