The Secret State of Torture

The Secret State of Torture

After professing to abhor torture, the Bush Justice Department secretly authorized it. And the consequences for us all are grave.


Like a sharp razor cutting through the fog of war, the New York Times headline reads, “Justice Dept. Said to Back Harshest Tactics After Declaring Torture Abhorrent.”

The report could not be clearer. The Bush Justice Department has secretly authorized “the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Simulated drowning. Fear of suffocation. Blows to the head. Naked men held in freezing cells. Sleep deprivation. Noise assaults.

All secretly legalized, from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib. Anything is permissible up to organ failure or death, or unless it “shocks the conscience.”

In defense of silence, one might claim it is impossible to be shocked at horrors that are not known.

But if we know, and still are not shocked, there are lessons.

It’s all in the 1960 classic Battle of Algiers, in the dialogue between a journalist and a general:

The Journalist:

Excuse me. It seems that out of an excess of caution, my colleagues keep asking you indirect questions. It would be better to call a spade a spade, so let’s talk about torture.

The General:

The word “torture” isn’t used in our orders. We use “interrogation” as the only valid police method. We could talk for hours to no avail because that is not the problem. The problem is this. The FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay.
 Even with slight shades of opinion, you all agree that we must stay. We’re here for that reason alone. We are neither madmen nor sadists. We are soldiers. Our duty is to win. Therefore to be precise, it is my turn to ask a question.
 Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.

Are the torturers winning? The Times front-page headline surrenders the struggle over words. “Severe Interrogation” replaces torture as a description of our behavior. Nonetheless, the Times has the courage to lay bare the entire truth of the Bush Administration’s secret policies.

If torture is winning on the field of rhetoric, it must be stopped in reality. Otherwise, we will be accepting America’s status as an emptied democracy that cannot put an end to its own gulags.

Two weeks ago, a Pentagon commission reported that the Iraqi security forces are engaged in brutal sectarian violence against civilians. The White House acknowledged the same findings in July. The Baker-Hamilton Report made the same findings almost two years ago. The torture runs deep. And it continues, with American advisers and $19 billion in taxpayer funding.

We must learn a painful lesson, that torture is not out-of-control behavior by an isolated handful of poorly trained soldiers but is integral, sooner or later, in any policies aimed at suppressing a popular insurgency. And secrecy is not limited to a handful of overenthusiastic bureaucrats but is integral, sooner or later, to any state pursuing an unpopular war. Torture and secrecy are embedded in America’s policies in Iraq. And so we must paraphrase the French general’s question to the media and public, by asking:

Should America stay in Iraq? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.

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