The protests start about CIA torture as the echoes die on protests about NSA surveillance. Expect the same result.

Summary:  Yet again the protests start. The ink on the placards protesting NSA surveillance has almost dried as the outrage begins about the Senate torture report. We can expect the same result: nothing. The battle over torture was fought and lost by 2009. Our use of torture, the debates about it, and the outcome reveal much about America, about us — and points the way to building a better America. See today’s follow-up post:  Consequences of US torture. And a snapshot of a tottering Republic going through the motions of “debate”.

For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword though the world.

— John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity (1630)

PEW Research: Americans  torture
Source: Pew website

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Consider the futility of the protests about torture sparked by the Senate report. While the details are new, we knew the basic facts in 2007. We had this debate then, and I doubt repeating it will lead to different conclusions.

I did a series of posts about torture in Spring 2009, with hundreds of comments (see here) — most supporting torture (when done by Americans; it’s barbaric when done to Americans). Similar discussions took place on a hundred other websites, with similar results.

The years since then have seen only moral degeneration in America, not renewal. We cheered the fictional success of CIA torturers in “Zero Dark Thirty”. We enjoyed watching “24” on TV, with torture routine and effective — when done by the good guys (i.e., us). Our leaders told us stories of brave government agents gaining essential information by torture.

All lies, as we knew then (if we cared to see), and as the Senate report tells us again now. But with cumulative effect, strengthening our support for torture and alienating us from our history fighting evil in WW2 (I have long feared that Hitler was just early).

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Our support for torture grows
Source: Pew Research

No public policy has changed since the initial revelations in the years after 9/11. Nothing will change from the current surge of outrage. The precedent has been set by Obama’s disregard of our treaty obligations to punish torturers; his actions trump his pretty words. The Republican Party has taken the lead in defending use of torture, which by itself makes reform impossible. Our leaders stopped torturing when they felt like doing so, and will torture again when they want to (just as the 1979 Church Committee reforms on the CIA proved ephemeral).

The outrage about the Snowden revelations led to no reforms of the NSA; nor will these. These are peasants’ protests. They provide entertainment for us (hiss the bad guys!), employment for pundits, clickbait for the media.  (Update: slow recognition emerges of this obvious result: “CIA unlikely to lose power in wake of interrogation report“, Washington Post, 9 Dec).

Torture support by party
Source here

Few of the people protesting the torture — even demanding punishment for the torturers — feel personal responsibility for their governments’ deeds. The majority favoring torture care nothing for the Constitution’s prohibitions or the treaties we signed (most recently, in 1988 President Reagan signed the United Nations Convention against Torture).

Conclusions

… the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
— From C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, chapter VII

We are losing. Our efforts to turn America around have failed, and will continue to fail, because they assume that information will change people’s opinions — and motivate them to take action. We don’t know what’s the government does in our name.  Protests will gain attention and communicate the important messages, appealing to the innate goodness of the American people.  But we are not good, therefore this will not work.

It is late; there are no longer any easy solutions. We need a plan “b”. I believe we need to change the values of the America people. It’s been done before in our history.

  • In May 1764 Samuel Adams took his first steps to end British rule in America (see details here).  That same year a small group of people in Boston formed the first of the Committees of Correspondence.  The Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
  • In 1774 Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush founded America’s first anti-slavery society.  In 1868 we ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the mid-1960′s the great Civil Rights legislation ended the government-sponsored oppression of Blacks.

Any “plan B” means we starting on a long and difficult road. Especially since we’re drifting into darkness. Slowly, with our eyes closed. Worse things lie ahead for America.

I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost forever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible. … Society which looks indifferently on such a phenomenon is already contaminated to its very foundation.

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of The Dead (1861), about the life in a Siberian prison camp

Posts in this series about the Senate report describing CIA torture

  1. The protests start about CIA torture as the echoes die on protests about NSA surveillance. Expect the same result.
  2. Consequences of US torture. And a snapshot of a tottering Republic going through the motions of “debate”.
  3. Close this chapter of America’s use of torture (it’s over). Look ahead to the next chapter.
  4. Our leaders justify torture in ways that justify its future use on their foes (including Americans)

For More Information

The best source of information about torture I’ve found is “EDUCING INFORMATION, Interrogation: Science and Art, Foundations for the Future“, Intelligence Science Board, National Defense Intelligence College, December 2006 — 372 pages. The authors are skeptical. The Wikipedia entry on torture has valuable background information.

(b)  Surveys about our support for torture:

  1. Pro-Pain pundits“, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 1 January 2002 — Supporters of torture
  2. Pew Research survey, April 2009
  3. A False Consensus about Public Opinion on Torture“, John Sides, 6 July 2010 — Findings quite different than the other polls
  4. Pew Research survey, September 2011
  5. Pew Research survey, 9 December 2011
  6. Amnesty International 2014 survey of national attitudes to torture
  7. Americans Have Grown More Supportive Of Torture“, 538, 9 December 2014 — A review of the polls
  8. Americans have no idea what they really think about torture“, Washington Post, 10 December 2014 — Kicking dust in the air; this is true about most polls.

(c)  Posts about torture:

  1. Something every American should read, 25 March 2009 — Details about CIA torture programs
  2. We close our eyes to torture by our government. The Brits are stronger., 9 April 2009
  3. So many Americans approve of torture; what does this tell us about America?, 30 April 2009
  4. The Reverse Nuremberg Defense – “We were just giving orders“, 20 May 2009
  5. Our government does torture, but it is just like the treatment of young reporters by newspapers, 16 February 2010
  6. The US government at work, doing dark deeds in our name, 13 March 2010
  7. Reading about American torturers is a bummer. Let’s close our eyes and pretend it didn’t happen, and will not happen again., 22 March 2010
  8. An expert speaks to us about torture, 5 May 2010
  9. The long-term consequences to America of torturing Bradley Manning, 15 March 2011
  10. More symptoms of decay: professional associations abandoning their standards and obligation to protect us, 4 May 2011
  11. As we finish a dark 2012, what will we see in 2013 of The New America?, 26 December 2012
  12. Why are we surprised that we supported militia in Iraq, and they used torture?, 12 March 2013

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13 thoughts on “The protests start about CIA torture as the echoes die on protests about NSA surveillance. Expect the same result.

  1. Yeah, that Educing document is excellent. When reading the Senate report and noting how the torture medics and psychologists keep the victim alive for the sole purpose of enduring more pain and suffering, I immediately thought about the scene from the movie Seven in which John Doe (Kevin Spacey) has kept one of his victims alive for months in a room with hanging car air fresheners to cover the stench of human decay. When Mills and Somerset (Pitt and Freeman) come upon him, turns out he is alive. You are right about knowing what was going on way back in the last decade re: torture. I was threatened via letter from CACI’s law firm Steptoe & Johnson for writing about CACI contractors torturing “folks”. I got an address wrong in the piece but someone named A bailed me out. http://cryptome.org/rummy-op2.htm…CACI got away with it, of course, but this summer an appeals court reopened litigation against CACI by some tortured.

    One of the saddest passages in the Senate report is one from the field about CIA officials participating in water torture, etc.. In one report a CIA official apparently cries and vomits and others may likely to want to transfer. You are right to talk about moral decay as we do so from within.

    Then the media collaboration between WAPO, NYT, etc. What a &^%$%# mess!

    Got a book you might be interested in: National Security and Double Government, Michael Glennon, Oxford University Press, 2015

  2. I’d like to think one reason public opinion has remained flat, was the secrecy of the torture program’s ugly details and its extent, and the media taboo of this subject.

    Maybe i’m being hopeful, but I think this is a case of “bring it out into the open and make loud noises about it for a long time!”.

    1. Everybody knew, but I don’t think it was really out in the open. Swept under the rug, with the blessing of the government. Otherwise why should the CIA / executive branch fight the senate report?

      There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance that has to be overcome — introduces the questions of where we really stand on the rule-of-law concept, for one thing.

  3. I recommend scrolling through the 105 comments to So many Americans approve of torture; what does this tell us about America?, 30 April 2009. Lots of people auditioning for jobs with our Stasi — or Gestapo.

    As the government steps up its secret police apparatus, it will have no difficulty recruiting people to do anything at all to their fellow Americans.

    At the time this shocked me so much that I shut down comments for several months. Too much information. Insights that I didn’t want to know.

  4. You’ll always win if you bet on the ignorance, greed, and fear of the American voting public.

    Shouldn’t be too hard to convince stupid people that they’ll gain something by doing the right thing (or lose something if they don’t).

    “Gas prices go up each time the CIA tortures a terrorist, because their friends in Arabia retaliate by shutting off the oil.”
    “Did you hear the CIA has started to target WHITE people? You could be next!”

    1. Todd,

      My impression — it would take substantial research to determine — is that we were better in the past. Lots of exceptions (e.g., treatment of non-Whites). But on the whole better. Certainly more involved in working the political machinery.

      Why the decay? My guess (emphasis on guess) is that increased economic stress is the cause. People lack the time and energy for involvement in larger matters. For example, see the big service clubs — Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions. In the 1990s I was a frequent speaker at these. They were alive, active. Recently I visited a few of the ones I knew best. Smaller, older, passive. Little new blood, and that was mostly people seeking contacts for business. Ditto the local Chamber of Commerce.

      The foundation of the Republic was the middle class. As it dies, the Republic slumps down around it. I don’t know why this isn’t obvious to all.

  5. Economic stress doesn’t explain the relative activism of the 1890’s and 1930’s the two largest depressions. I think this moral decay is new.
    I think that ww3 is now a significant possibility.

    1. Socialbill,

      You might easily be right that our degree of moral decay is something new to us. I don’t like to speculate without evidence, but I feel that you’re right.

      Good pont about the 1890s and 1930 — Yes, those had political activism AND economic stress beyond anything of our time (of the 30 years 1869 to 1899, 17 of them were in recession. With no social safety net). Perhaps there’s a “U” effect. In good times people have the time and energy to become involved in their community. Under stress they pull back. But eventually they see that there’s no end to is, and band together to become active. I’m just guessing. There’s probably good research on this by social scientists.

  6. Re: Plan B

    Plato perceived 5th / 4th Century BC Athens as decaying much as America today appears to be.
    (And does not the Melian Dialogue capture so much of what is now happening in America?)

    Ergo, much of his work was an effort to create his own Plan B, as the Greek city states in general and Athens in particular became increasingly dysfunction – submitting eventually to Macedon.

    While Plato himself sought for a philosopher king to solve his political objectives, later neoPlatonism instead featured secret societies and covert networks. Both Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code have heavy neoPlatonic overtones.

    So Platonism and neoPlatonism provide us with a copious framework to forge a Plan B. It would require scrutiny and adaptation to today’s circumstances and our particular needs. But it is robust, fully developed, profound, sophisticated, and humane.

    I am still in some state of denial about actually doing this sort of thing – but in terms of developing a Plan B – definitely.

    1. Duncan,

      Thank you for this brilliant, provocative comment. It’s largely over my head, but provides the kind of big picture context that can illuminate our situation and identify alternative paths to a better world.

      Can you explain this a bit more for the most-of-us for whom neoplatonism is something we recall from a sophomore philosophy class? Not what it is (we can consult Wikipedia), but its relevance to 21st C American politics and society.

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