Archive for the ‘Torture’ Category

Robin Kirk reviews, and laments, the Christian church’s complacent, and at times complicit, response to the use of torture in the war against terrorism. Most interesting to me were comments by evangelical scholar and ethicist David Gushee. Kirk writes:

Yet, Gushee acknowledged, convincing ministers to approach their flocks to oppose torture is challenging, even with young, committed seminary graduates. “Most graduates are trying to find jobs in churches, whose membership is declining,” he said. “No one wants to offend their congregants about irritating issues like torture.”

Some Christians would draw the line between torture, which they see as a political issue, and faith. Gushee said that when he gave a talk at a Baptist church, one attendee accused him of bringing “leftist politics” into the church. “Even the growing churches aren’t interested in these conversations,” Gushee reported. “They don’t want to mess up a good thing and don’t think it is a part of their agenda, which is one of personal growth and finding your best life now.”

Francis Schaeffer, so often cited as a significant influence on today’s evangelical movement, often warned of Americans’ pursuit of “personal peace and affluence.” But Christians, who he envisioned as countercultural force, all too often swoon to the siren’s call of affluence — so much that we fall deaf to evil of torture and its corrosive effect on our corporate soul.

Personal peace? Perhaps, but it’s a peace hollowed out from within by the embrace of torture. As a nation, this is a truth that we have not been willing to face. I pray that one day we can find the courage to do so.

Read Full Post »

“Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture” — that was a prominent headline  earlier this week in The New York Times. To which Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick replied:

Do we have to have another big national debate about torture? Really, do we have to? Headlines like this one, in the New York Times no less, inform us that the Osama Bin Laden raid has “revived” the arguments over the “value of torture.” That’s strange, because until now, the only people “reviving” the debate over the wonders of torture were the same people whose names are actually on the torture memos or who were in the room when torture methods were being approved. This does not constitute a “debate.” A better term would be self-serving propaganda.

Lithwick is right in her characterization of John Yoo and former Vice President Dick Cheney (see video), and in calling their arguments self-serving propaganda. But Lithwick and Deborah Pearlstein (who also laments the “disheartening” return of the torture debate) should not be surprised.

The debate never was settled in the first place.

And President Obama deserves as much credit (so to speak) as anyone. Obama’s choice not to investigate Bush-era abuses essentially put the debate into a deep freeze; there’s never been any proper accounting, much less accountability, that’s needed for a proper public resolution.

As a result, those responsible for perpetuating and defending torture, such as Cheney, Yoo and (so sad) former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, remain free to pounce on any opportunity to make their case.

But as Alice Ristroph notes over at Balkinization, these renewed arguments by the torture apologists undermine their previous rationale: the ticking time bomb:

The fantasy of the ticking bomb was designed to make people more comfortable with torture, in part by suggesting certain conditions on its use: most importantly, an imminent threat of catastrophic harm that could be averted by torture and torture alone. The renewed endorsements of torture after the death of Osama bin Laden illustrate that it’s not about the ticking after all.

On the revised account, the torture of suspected terrorists was justified if it yielded one piece of information that contributed to the eventual success, years after the torture took place, of a long-term manhunt (a hunt based, by all reports, on a vast array of intelligence from many different sources). Torture need not “work” quickly, it need not be the only means of gaining the information, and the information need not be essential to avert imminent catastrophe. Indeed, torture need not be concerned with future threats at all – it seems widely acknowledged that killing bin Laden was a matter of “bringing him to justice” for past deeds, or, as one honest fellow put it, exacting revenge.

Many, notably Andrew Sullivan and Lithwick,  also have offered strong rebuttals. But without the force of an independent investigation we are back to the same deadlocked back-and-forth stalemate on torture that existed during the Bush administration. And in this case, justice debated remains justice denied, to our shame.

Read Full Post »

With former President George W. Bush taking to the airwaves and reiterating his defense of torture, this is a time to consider the choices of another American in the fight against terror.

His name is Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent involved in the investigations of the attack on the USS Cole and 9/11. His interrogation of Al-Qaeda member Abu Jandal is recounted in Laura Poitras’ film “The Oath” and Lawrence Wright’s superb book “The Looming Tower.” Without a hint of coercion, Soufan’s interrogation of Jandal proved so fruitful that (according to Poitras) the United States actually delayed its invasion of Afghanistan in order to take advantage of what was being learned.

As more information on torture emerged in the press over time, Soufan went public with a New York Times 0p-ed in April 2009, reflecting on his interrogation of Abu Zubaydah of Al-Qaeda:

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The shortsightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Despite working under the kind of time “ticking time bomb” pressures often cited as justification for torture, Soufan showed that one could work diligently to protect the nation while still fulfilling its highest ideals. When The New York Times celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Op-ed page in October, it cited Soufan’s column as one of the notable contributions to the section.

That Soufan, a native of Lebanon, would make this choice is no surprise to Wright, who calls Soufan one of the heroes of his book:

He knew what it was like to live in lawlessness and chaos, to see cities destroyed. His family fled to America during the civil war, and he loved America because it allowed him to dream. In return, America embraced him. …

He had developed  a fascination with the American Constitution, and like many naturalized citizens, he had a feeling of indebtedness for the new life he had been given.

Soufan remains a voice of truth and integrity who reminds all of us that how we pursue justice matters just as much as the outcome. If anything, we are indebted to him. One can only hope that he is joined by more like-minded voices over time — and that we as a nation are willing to actually listen.

Read Full Post »

So, this is what President Obama gets for choosing to “look forward” rather than back at the Bush Administration’s embrace of torture:

In a memoir due out Tuesday, Bush makes clear that he personally approved the use of that coercive technique (waterboarding) against alleged Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an admission the human rights experts say could one day have legal consequences for him.

In his book, titled “Decision Points,” Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was “Damn right” and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives.

So, we have a former president admitting his role in war crimes, invoking the same defense he aggressively asserted during a 2006 interview with Today’s Matt Lauer in the video at the top of this post. And yet, as a New York Times review notes today, Bush also says he was surprised by the torture that took place at Abu Ghraib:

He says he felt “blindsided” over Abu Ghraib: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “had told me the military was investigating reports of abuse at the prison, but I had no idea how graphic or grotesque the photos would be,” he writes. “The first time I saw them was the day they were aired on ‘60 Minutes II.’ ”

Take note, both in the video and in his book, how Bush takes credit for protecting the American people while shifting responsibility for our nation’s actions to others, particularly government lawyers. Our lawyers said this stuff was OK, so it’s OK — or as Bush states repeatedly, it’s “within the law.”

What he never notes is how his lawyers radically reinterpreted international law, redefining the word torture itself:

Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions, or even death. (Memo from Jay S. Bybee to Alberto Gonzales, August 1, 2002).

Note also how Bush writes that he had “no idea how graphic or grotesque the photos would be.” It’s the photos — not the acts themselves — that are grotesque.

All this from a president who professes his faith in Christ and is seen by many evangelicals as one of their own.

Finally, Bush’s impunity is breathtaking. Because the Obama Administration has chosen not to pursue a full accounting of what transpired under Bush’s watch, if anything the former president has been emboldened to defend the indefensible — rather than slip away quietly and sigh with relief over having dodged a legal bullet.

Several sources in the Post story note that Bush appears to expect no consequences for admitting a crime. As Georgetown law professor David Cole tells the Post:

The fact that he did admit it suggests he believes he is politically immune from being held accountable. . . . But politics can change.

Read Full Post »

Update: I’ve substituted the trailer for the new film, replacing a clip from an older PBS documentary on Nuremberg.

There’s a new documentary about the Nuremberg war crimes trials, a re-assembling of footage from a never-released film of the proceedings. The original film had been authorized by the U.S. government at the time of trials, and portions had been used in one government movie long ago. But much of the raw material was either destroyed or lost with the passage of time.

Much of what remains has been assembled by Sandra Schulberg, daughter of the Stuart Schulberg, who supervised the filming of the trials. In today’s New York Times, reviewer A. O. Scott notes that while “Nuremberg” does not reveal anything new about the crimes, “there is a raw immediacy in ‘Nuremberg’ that nearly closes the gap between past and present.”

Scott adds:

The guiding spirit of the Nuremberg trials is worth recalling now, in the midst of the continuing argument about how to deal properly with enemies who show nothing but contempt for the norms of liberal society. The Nuremberg answer was to hold onto those norms with a special tenacity, to afford the accused precisely the acknowledgment of humanity that they had denied their victims. That they were allowed to defend themselves also meant that they had, in front of the world, to choose whether to admit their depravity, lie about it or try to justify it.

That “guiding spirit” of the Nuremberg trials stands in stark contrast with the treatment of suspected terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay. Law professor David Cole, in a review of recent books on Guantanamo, paints a picture of extreme secrecy designed not to shield government secrets, but U.S. complicity in torture:

Even the physical design of the Guantánamo courtroom is shaped by the desire to conceal our own abuses. A soundproof glass wall separates the onlookers from the trial participants, so that the only way an observer can hear what is going on is through headphones with a forty-second delay. The reason, according to Denny LeBoeuf, an ACLU lawyer advising on the defense of several detainees, is “the Rule: detainees are forbidden from speaking about their torture.”

Remarkably, the US government has declared “classified” anything that the detainees say about their torture, and has required the lawyers, as a condition of access to their clients, to keep secret all details of their clients’ treatment at the hands of their interrogators. But of course, the US cannot compel the detainees themselves not to speak of the unspeakable. The only way it can keep them from telling their stories is by keeping them detained, behind bars, behind glass, silenced. 

If there’s any film or video from the hearings in Guantanamo, it’s not likely we’ll see any of it anytime soon — and whatever we might see will likely be redacted.

It is one thing to open the courts and allow the world to see the crimes of others, as we did with the Nazis. It is another to examine our own wrongdoing.

In this case, our leaders’ refusal to look back at the torture performed in our name has not just compromised efforts to bring terrorists to justice. It has denied the world a full accounting of the terrorists’ depravity, while casting a shadow over our own humanity.

Read Full Post »

I’ve started reading Lawrence Wright’s book on 9/11, “The Looming Tower,” one of those works on my lengthy “must-read” list. Should have been higher on the list from the beginning.

Wright does what few others have even tried to do: trace the origins of 9/11 back to its sources over the past five decades in the Islamist movement. It is a work rich in context and nuance, aided by skillful writing that is accentuates clarity and simplicity.  Wright builds a bracing narrative, but even though you know where this story is going to end you are compelled to read in order to find how the tale unfolds.

As we mark another anniversary of 9/11, if you are still wondering why all this came to pass, you could not do better than to read Wright’s book — or watch his new documentary, “My Trip to Al Qaeda,” which premiered this week on HBO.

This film started out as a one-man play of the same name, in which Wright reflects on the experience of researching and writing his book. That may not sound very exciting at first, but Wright’s personal journey is fascinating as an expansive reflection on everything from the challenge of objectivity to the emergence of major themes during his research.

Wright’s journey actually started years before 9/11; he was screenwriter for the 1998 film “The Siege,” which explored what might happen in the case of terrorist attacks on the United States (see trailer at bottom). The film had a mixed reception from critics and wasn’t a success at the box office; the film also was blasted by Arab American groups for stereotyping those of Middle East descent.

However, as Wright notes, in the month after 9/11 “The Siege” was the most-rented film in America — though its warnings on issues such as habeas corpus and torture had little impact on U.S. discourse or policy in the coming years. Wright also found that an early attack by Al Qaeda, on a Planet Hollywood, of all places, was related to “The Siege.” Bruce Willis, on of the film’s stars, was a co-owner of the restaurant chain — and this connection was highlighted when terrorists took credit for the bomb attack.

Though small in comparison to other attacks, there still were some fatalities. That bothered Wright a great deal, and it was one reason he pursued what became “The Looming Tower.”

In an interview posted at Scott Horton’s blog earlier this week, Wright discusses one of his strongest insights from his research: the distinction between humility and humiliation:

Humility is a highly valued character trait in Islamic culture. When bin Laden’s followers praise him, they often invoke this quality. The fact that bin Laden is from a wealthy family makes this aspect of his personality all the more appealing.

Humiliation, on the other hand, is imposed from the outside. It is one of the most common words in bin Laden’s vocabulary. For many Muslims who resonate with the term, their humiliation may be cultural or religious in nature—the sense of Islamic societies being overpowered by Western values, mores, and political dictates.

But it is also true that a number of Muslims have been physically humiliated. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for instance, the number-two man in Al Qaeda, the doctor always at bin Laden’s elbow, was imprisoned for three years in Egypt following the Sadat assassination. Like many of his companions, he was brutally tortured. I think the particular appetite for carnage that sets Al Qaeda apart from other terrorist organizations was born in the humiliation such men suffered in those prisons.

Nothing excuses the carnage of 9/11. But if we’re to be honest with ourselves, we also must be willing hard truths such as this and reflect on why our embrace of torture after 9/11 was not only morally bankrupt, it was unfruitful by fueling Islamists’ ideology against the West.

It’s a lesson we’re still struggling to learn. And it’s but one of the many reasons to read “The Looming Tower” and see “My Trip to Al Qaeda.”

Read Full Post »

Saw this quote earlier today on Andrew Sullivan’s blog:

They should have been indicted. They absolutely should have been indicted for torturing, for spying, for arresting without warrants. I’d like to say they should be indicted for lying but believe it or not, unless you’re under oath, lying is not a crime. At least not an indictable crime. It’s a moral crime.

That’s Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, in a moment of commendable moral clarity, discussing former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney during a recent TV interview. Perhaps he has made similar statements on Fox, but I couldn’t help but notice that this statement appeared during an interview on C-SPAN 2. Opposition to torture is a value that should transcend the distinction between conservative and liberal. To resist torture is a sign of moral strength, not weakness. I wonder if the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page will denounce Napolitano as an enemy of national security, as it has with other opponents of torture.

Just goes to show: You never know where a small bit of grace will burst through the media haze.

Read Full Post »

Bono has written a series of op-eds in The New York Times over the past year, but his writing had left me underwhelmed. But on Sunday he offered a moving reflection on forgiveness, justice and grace in response to Britain’s admission of guilt in the Bloody Sunday slayings. He wrote of British Prime Minister David Cameron:

It was inconceivable to many that a Tory prime minister could manage to get these words out of his mouth. It was also inconceivable — before he uttered the carefully minted phrasing — that he would be listened to by a hushed crowd gathered in Guildhall Square in Derry, a place not famous for its love of British leaders of any stripe, and that he would be cheered while speaking on specially erected screens that earlier had been used to relay images from the World Cup.

Thirty-eight years did not disappear in an 11-minute speech — how could they, no matter how eloquent or heartfelt the words? But they changed and morphed, as did David Cameron, who suddenly looked like the leader he believed he would be. From prime minister to statesman.

Then, in words that President Obama and other leaders in the United States should take to heart, Bono added:

Healing is kind of a corny word but it’s peculiarly appropriate here; wounds don’t easily heal if they are not out in the open. The Saville report brought openness — clarity — because at its core, it accorded all the people involved in the calamity their proper role. …

It’s not just the Devil who’s in the details … God, it turns out, is in there too. Daylight …

If there are any lessons for the world from this piece of Irish history … for Baghdad … for Kandahar … it’s this: things are quick to change for the worse and slow to change for the better, but they can. They really can. It takes years of false starts, heartbreaks and backslides and, most tragically, more killings. But visionaries and risk-takers and, let’s just say it, heroes on all sides can bring us back to the point where change becomes not only possible again, but inevitable.

All nations are dogged by moments in history when their darker sides triumph, and it appears to take years and considerable distance before a true reckoning takes place — whether it’s the British in Northern Ireland or the United States with its internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Or the embrace of torture in the wake of 9/11, in which President Obama has adopted the “just keep walking” mantra of Peggy Noonan and refused to sort through what happened to our nation in that moment.  But in time the full truth will come out. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 40 years, as it took the British with Bloody Sunday.

In honor of Bono’s column and the British report, I’m including two great performances of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” recorded 18 years apart. Listen to them as you read this postscript by Bono about U2’s most famous song:

U2 is in a studio in Dublin, playing its new song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” to the record company. The melody is a good one but the lyric is, in hindsight, an inarticulate speech of the heart. It’s a small song that tries but fails to contrast big ideas … atonement with forgiveness … “Bloody Sunday” with Easter Sunday. The song will be sung wherever there are rock fans with mullets and rage, from Sarajevo to Tehran. Over time, the lyric will change and grow. But here, with the Cockneyed record company boss at the song’s birth, the maternity ward goes quiet when the man announces that the baby is “a hit”… with one caveat: “Drop the ‘bloody.’ ‘Bloody’ won’t bloody work on the radio.”

Read Full Post »

A pair of new studies show just how much we still have to learn about our nation’s embrace of torture over the past decade, and however much President Obama chooses not to “look back” the messy truth has a pesky tendency to refuse a neat burial.

The first study, from Physicians for Human Rights, argues that health professionals who worked for or on behalf of the CIA  “conducted human research and experimentation on prisoners in US custody,” in which they “monitored the interrogations of detainees, collected and analyzed the results of those interrogations, and sought to derive generalizable inferences to be applied in subsequent interrogations.”

The video at the top, co-produced with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, offers more detail. You can read the full report here. The New York Times provided some coverage today.

The second study, overlooked by the news media so far but not by attorney/blogger Scott Horton, is perhaps even more noteworthy in that it arises from within the military.

In a case study, U.S. Army Major Douglas A. Pryor examined the ethical decision-making of officers in response to loosened guidelines for interrogation early in the Iraq war. Pryor concluded that “the essential ethical position chosen by leaders is the most important determinant of the level of detainee abuse in interrogation units on today’s battlefields.” When loosened guidelines for interrogations were distributed in Iraq some commanders just ignored them. As one officer told Pryor: “For an interrogator to resort to techniques like that is for the interrogator to admit that they don’t know how to interrogate.”

Pryor argues that the study’s findings highlight a moral imperative for U.S. officers:

The decision that may be most critical to the ultimate effectiveness of U.S. leaders in combat is will we let our ideals govern us and reside in the “city upon the hill?” Or, will we attempt to live hidden from view in the “ends-justifies-the-means camp?” … Ultimately, no decision may be more important to a U.S. combat leader than this choice.

I’d urge those who argue that the United States is a Christian nation with a divine calling from God consider carefully how Pryor invoked the language from John Winthrop’s famous call for the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a “city on a hill.” Pryor traces the “dominant” tradition of the military against torture back to that exhortation as well as decisions by George Washington on the treatment of British prisoners during the Revolutionary War.

Pryor also noted that within the U.S. military there’s always been tension between opponents of torture and advocates of “intelligence at any cost.” However, with the exception of “racially motivated” use of torture during the Indian wars and the Philippine-American war, the dominant value within the military has been to oppose torture.

For years supporters of, ahem, “enhanced interrogations” have derided opponents of torture as being soft on national defense and endangering the nation. Yet some of the most articulate and passionate opposition to torture has come from within the military, where many understand how torture betrays our nation’s core values. They understand the long-term cost of torture, something its supporters have declined to face. 

If our light is to shine again, it will be because members of the military have shown the moral courage to resist these practices and return our nation to firm standards.

Read Full Post »

“24” finished its eight-season run tonight with its usual mix of  melodrama, implausibility, adrenaline and, yes, violence. For a post-mortem on the series finale, read here. For an interesting video review of the series, watch here.

The show grabbed my interest right off the bat in 2001, and my attention wavered back-and-forth in subsequent seasons. Its premise, a TV season done in real time of a 24-hour day, was both ridiculous and captivating. Jack Bauer was an undeniably sympathetic character, especially during the first season when his wife and daughter were kidnapped by Serbs who wanted Bauer to facilitate the assassination of a presidential candidate. Bauer, as he always would, saved the day — but at a great price, ending the season holding the lifeless body of his murdered wife. In a just-published essay, Kathryn Reklis places Bauer within the long tradition of the “suffering hero”:

While many of the “good guys” who work for the fictional counter-terrorism unit have engaged in torture on the show, Jack is elevated above them all, both for his willingness to take the law into his own hands and for the brutality of his methods. … But the terror of his tactics is made palatable and even desirable as our sympathies are directed away from the body in pain to the body inflicting it. Jack suffers emotionally and existentially for the pain he causes.

The ability to engage the empathy of viewers was central to making Bauer’s actions acceptable, if not understandable. That, combined with “24’s” rush of thrills, made for a potent combination. And it opened the door for the use of tactics that previously would have been off-limits for a network TV hero. As “24” embraced an ethic of torture, justified by the perpetual ticking-time-bomb terrorist plots, it retained an audience that covered the political spectrum. Keifer Sutherland brought to Bauer limitless gravitas, somehow appealing to America’s self-image of its better angels while often behaving like one its worst.  In the end, the use of torture became so regular that it was impossible to look past or explain away as the act of a damaged yet sympathetic character. Jane Mayer’s 2007 New Yorker profile of “24” creator Joel Surnow brought “24’s” embrace of torture into clear light; she also offers an excellent video discussion of torture techniques on “24” here.

But while the show is now over, it will live on in DVD rentals and sales (and video satire, above), and we will continue to wrestle with the legacy of the Bush-Cheney embrace of torture in the wake of 9/11. In that respect, “24” was a show of its time.

Update: Here’s one more tribute from a “24” fan, published at Salon.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »