It’s mind-boggling. Torture is still up for grabs in America. No one questions anymore whether the CIA waterboarded one individual eighty-three times or another 186 times. The basic facts are no longer in dispute either by those who champion torture or those who, like myself, despise the very idea of it. No one questions whether some individuals died being tortured in American custody. (They did.) No one questions that it was a national policy devised by those at the very highest levels of government. (It was.) But many, it seems, still believe that the torture policy, politely renamed in its heyday “the enhanced interrogation program,” was a good thing for the country.
Now, the nation awaits the newest chapter in the torture debate without having any idea whether it will close the book on American torture or open a path of pain and shame into the distant future. No one yet knows whether we will be allowed to awake from the nightmarish and unacceptable world of illegality and obfuscation into which torture and the network of offshore prisons, or “black sites,” plunged us all.
April 28 marks the tenth anniversary of the moment that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were made public in this country. On that day a decade ago, the TV news magazine 60 Minutes II broadcast the first photographs from that American-run prison in “liberated” Iraq. They showed US military personnel humiliating, hurting and abusing Iraqi prisoners in a myriad of perverse ways. While American servicemen and women smiled and gave thumbs up, naked men were threatened by dogs, or were hooded, forced into sexual positions, placed standing with wires attached to their bodies, or left bleeding on prison floors.
Thus began America’s public odyssey with torture, a story in many chapters and still missing an ending. As the Abu Ghraib anniversary nears and the White House, the CIA and various senators still battle over the release of a summary of a 6,300-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Bush-era torture policies, it’s worth considering the strange journey we’ve taken and wondering just where we as a nation mired in the legacy of torture might be headed.
Chapter One: Revelations
The odyssey started with the shock of those 60 Minutes II photos, followed two days later by the reporting of veteran New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh. Having seen even more grim photographs and interviewed many in the chain of command stretching from Abu Ghraib to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon, Hersh painted a picture of a deliberate policy of abuse. He traced Abu Ghraib’s crimes to pressure from “military-intelligence teams, which included CIA officers and linguists and interrogation specialists from private defense contractors,” urging the production—and fast—of crucial information from US captives in Iraq. Towards this end, the guards at Abu Ghraib were encouraged to “soften up” the detainees for interrogation.