Consequences of US torture. A snapshot of a tottering Republic going through the motions of “debate”.

Summary:  What are the consequences for the US from its use of torture on a scale with few precedents among developed nations in the modern era (and those examples considered shameful)? We can only guess, but there are some obvious ones — although seldom mentioned. Also, here are a few interesting notes from the “debate”.  This is a follow-up to this morning’s post, The protests start about CIA torture as the echoes die on protests about NSA surveillance. Expect the same result.

“indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement” (1972)

Justice tortured
From the ACLU


  1. Consequences of using torture
  2. Growls about accountability
  3. A rare note of realism
  4. The experts counter-attack
  5. The Right counter-attacks
  6. Fox News sees the torture debate
  7. Posts in this series about CIA torture
  8. A last note, about brothers in arms

(1)  Consequences of using torture

What’s the bottom line of these repeated revelations about US torture? Other than welcoming evil into our hearts, the long-term price of which will prove large beyond imagining.  Consider the factors involved in Realpolitik. Owning the moral high ground often provides substantial advantages in mobilizing support, both domestic and foreign. Sometimes owning the moral high ground provides a decisive advantage.

Americans should know this better than most. The Founders carefully cultivated support in Britain, explaining that we were fighting for our rights as “Englishmen” — such as no taxation without representation. That paid off big after Yorktown, with a collapse of support in Britain and eventually a peace treaty highly favorable to us.

The moral high ground proved even more decisive in the Civil War. Both Britain and France saw large gains from a Confederate Victory, but faced internal opposition from those uninterested in even a profitable alliance with evil. The War could easily have ended differently if the South had external support (much as the Revolution would have ended quickly without French support).

Our belief in American moral exceptionalism gains substance from our WWII crusade against fascism, and our almost unprecedented construction of a rights-based international order afterwards. The UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights might be remembered long after the USA becomes a minor entry in history books. Some unknowable part of our world leadership since comes from the moral capital gained then. Now we’ve squandered it. All of it.

Now people will laugh at our pretense of moral superiority, such as the State Department’s list of terrorist states (use of flying death machines doesn’t qualify?) and their endless reports about human rights violations by other nations. Laughter is poison to Empires. Fallen off our pulpit, we’ll have to find another way to relate to the world. Equally absurd has become our assumption that America’s actions must be regarded as inherently benign, unlike those of designated bad guys that get no benefit of the doubt (e.g., Russia, Iran).


The CIA Seal - revised
CIA Seal, revised From CannonFire


There’s not much else to say, as the situation is quite obvious.

(2)  Growls about accountability, foreign and domestic

Does anyone expect substantial results from this? “UN experts call for prosecution over US torture“, AP, 10 December 2014:

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, said it is “crystal clear” under international law that the United States, which ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994, now has an obligation to ensure accountability. … {US officials} cannot simply be granted impunity {sic} because of political expediency,” he said.

Ben Emmerson, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said the U.S. report showed “there was a clear policy orchestrated at a high level within the Bush administration, which allowed (it) to commit systematic crimes and gross violations of international human rights law.” He said international law prohibits granting immunity to public officials who allow the use of torture, and this applies not just to the actual perpetrators but also to those who plan and authorize it. “The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the U.S. government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability,” Emmerson said.

Other examples of hand-waving:

  1. To deter U.S. from torturing again, those involved should be prosecuted“, Kenneth Roth (Executive Director of Human Rights Watch), op-ed at Reuters, 9 December 2014
  2. Prosecute the torturers: It’s the law“, Erwin Chemerinsky (dean of the UC Irvine School of Law), op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, 9 December 2014
  3. Accountability for torture today is critical for stopping it tomorrow“, ACLU — “In our system, no one should be above the law or beyond its reach, no matter how senior the official. A”

(3) A rare note of realism

I think most of us know this: “CIA unlikely to lose power in wake of interrogation report“, Washington Post, 9 December 2014.

Accurate analysis, but draft framing: “Did the Senate just open the U.S. up to ICC prosecution?“, Mark Kersten (researcher at London School of Economics), Washington Post, 10 December 2014 — It’s the crime that opens us to prosecution (not the confession). Got to love this at the end: “Still, advocates of accountability should not get too far ahead of themselves.” That’s not likely.

(4)  The experts counter-attack

Former CIA officials have flooded the media with defenses, many highly creative and fact-free (e.g., former CIA chief Michael Hayden).  More interesting are the propaganda pieces by wise grave experts have become an art form since 9/11, defending government policy with slick reasoning and dubious “facts”. Conservatives believe these with a child-like credulous awe. These look wrong or delusional a few years later, when time has exposed the truth (too late). This is a gem of the genre: “CIA Torture: An Insider’s View“, XX Committee, 10 December 2014.

(5)  The Right counter-attacks

The Republicans line up to defend the CIA and officials of the Bush Jr administration, preventing any accountability for their deeds (e.g, in the NYT and the LAT). Their wing-nut media are aflame with articles like this: “The Senate CIA Report and Democratic Treachery“, Arnold Ahlert, FrontPage Magazine, 10 December 2014. They’re our new leadership, leading America into the dark. With Christian evangelicals in the front ranks. singing hymns.

(6)  The debate summarized on one sentence on Fox News

The witty scalawags in charge of Fox News hired a good-looking numbskull named Andrea Tantaros to be one of their hosts. (Her name, incidentally, is an anagram for tan Satan adorer.) When the Senate issued a report on the CIA’s use of torture, she offered a highly erudite response: “The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome …”

— From Joseph Cannon at Cannonfire



(7)  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)

(8)  A last note, about brothers in arms

 Jim Morin cartoon about Cheney and ISIS
By Jim Morin, From the Miami Herald, 10 December 2014



9 thoughts on “Consequences of US torture. A snapshot of a tottering Republic going through the motions of “debate”.”

    1. Joseph,

      It was my privileged to link to such an insightful (and well-written) post.

      As for Andrea Tantaros, we should acknowledge the genius of the Fox “News” team and their insight into the character of the old white boomer mind: fielding a team of beautiful articulate women as propagandists for the plutocracy.


      Andrea Tantaros talks about Muslims


      Andrea Tantaros talks about Muslims


      Andrea Tantaros at work


    1. Johnny,

      I haven’t watched TV at home since 1973, other than DVDs (just the old classics, like Walker Texas Ranger, and new classics like Miami Vice). We started streaming a few series this year (NCIS LA, Forever, Castle).

      But none of this prepared me for youtube videos of Fox News. Blew my mind. It was like 1960s dystopian science fiction , something Ray Bradbury would have written.

  1. Honesty, I think you are overestimating the effects of this. If you believe that the USA is not the best thing ever there is already quite a laundry list of reasons to support this opinion, this is just the icing on the cake. If you subscribe to American exceptionalism it is still easy to argue that the USA is more democratic/liberal/good/etc. than China/Russia/Caliphate/etc (I kinda expect to hear people saying “but we are still better than North Korea” someday, being dead serious about it). The drums will have to be beaten just a bit harder, not a very difficult thing.
    In the event it is dubious that there will be many tears shed worldwide over a few tortured muslims, attitudes are hardening in many places. As for the allies, what they are usually looking for is military support against Russia/China/Bogeyman, not lectures on human rights. Sure, it is nice that the USA is a democratic nation instead of an insane asylum run by bloodthirsty megalomaniacs but they will make do with what is available.
    The most corrosive effects will be on the inside, I suspect.

  2. This may be preaching to the converted … anyway, this is how I look upon it:

    One may raise (severe) doubts on the metaphor of “war” in the case of the fight against extremism (like in the case of this so called Islamic State). But let me use this “war” metaphor anyway to make my point.

    War is fought on several levels. The physical level (the actual fighting and anything which is connected to it, preceeds it like information; the “OODA loop” often mentioned here as well), the mental level and the moral level. How importantant the mental and moral levels are was shown in the Vietnam war. The Tet offensive in 1968 by the NLF was an all out disaster from a strickly physical point of view. Many of the actions by the NLF (e.g. the assault against the US embassy in – then – Saigon) were downright suicidal. However, on the mental and moral level the picture was quite different. We all know the final outcome.

    What is the relevance for torture in this story? Well, one can see it as follows:

    When considering gathering informtion, finding out the truth, torture is highly ineffective. One very often obtains false confessions. These may be useful as propaganda (often for vicious dictatorships – mr. Cheney joins a highly questionable company), but are worthless as information.

    Torture seeds hatred among your opponents. Pushes those sympathizing with them across the line between verbal sympathy and real action. The number of ememies grows, and more important, their cohesion grows as well. At the same time torture weakens one’s own cause. People sympathizing with your cause turn away in disgust. The number of friends descreases, and the cohesion on one’s own side decreases as well.

    Summarizing: Torture involves an enormous concession on the mental and moral level. The advantages on the physical level (information) are mostly non-exsistant, and often can be obtained much more effectively by means of more subtle prychological pressure in the hands of professionals.

    Torture squanders the moral high ground. Wars are/were lost in this way.

    Mazzel & broge / kind regards, Evert Wesker

  3. Several comments:
    1) The purpose of torture is torture (to paraphrase Orwell).
    2) The Empire has gotten steadily worse and depends more and more on forse and intimidation
    3) Many Germans claimed they didn’t know. Thanks to Utube we don’t have that excuse.
    4) The drums are already banging at top volume. I remember the Cold War and the sheer number of lies has never been higher.

  4. Torture proves extremely effective…at controlling your own population through fear.

    I suspect quite a few whistleblowers and potentially high-profile protesters have been deterred from speaking out for fear of winding up in a CIA black site shackled to the ceiling naked.

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