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)
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).
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).
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).
… 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
- The protests start about CIA torture as the echoes die on protests about NSA surveillance. Expect the same result.
- Consequences of US torture. And a snapshot of a tottering Republic going through the motions of “debate”.
- Close this chapter of America’s use of torture (it’s over). Look ahead to the next chapter.
- 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:
- “Pro-Pain pundits“, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 1 January 2002 — Supporters of torture
- Pew Research survey, April 2009
- “A False Consensus about Public Opinion on Torture“, John Sides, 6 July 2010 — Findings quite different than the other polls
- Pew Research survey, September 2011
- Pew Research survey, 9 December 2011
- Amnesty International 2014 survey of national attitudes to torture
- “Americans Have Grown More Supportive Of Torture“, 538, 9 December 2014 — A review of the polls
- “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:
- Something every American should read, 25 March 2009 — Details about CIA torture programs
- We close our eyes to torture by our government. The Brits are stronger., 9 April 2009
- So many Americans approve of torture; what does this tell us about America?, 30 April 2009
- The Reverse Nuremberg Defense – “We were just giving orders“, 20 May 2009
- Our government does torture, but it is just like the treatment of young reporters by newspapers, 16 February 2010
- The US government at work, doing dark deeds in our name, 13 March 2010
- 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
- An expert speaks to us about torture, 5 May 2010
- The long-term consequences to America of torturing Bradley Manning, 15 March 2011
- More symptoms of decay: professional associations abandoning their standards and obligation to protect us, 4 May 2011
- As we finish a dark 2012, what will we see in 2013 of The New America?, 26 December 2012
- Why are we surprised that we supported militia in Iraq, and they used torture?, 12 March 2013