Torture not just a Threat to our Safety, but a Threat to our Values
Whether Gina Haspel will “reinstate” CIA torture programs is beside the point: it is time to face up to our past — and present — if we are to secure our future.
CIA director nominee Gina Haspel, who has recently come under fire for her own role in a past CIA torture program, promised senators last week that she would not restart such torture programs if confirmed. Of course, there is very little reason to believe that they ever fully ceased, and even less reason to think that she will not be confirmed.
Frankly, whether Haspel “reinstates” torture or not, or even whether she is confirmed, is not what this ought to be about. The truly pressing question for us is whether she, in her own words (while wincing), would “support the higher moral standard that this country has decided to hold itself to” and whether this is even possible given our foreign policy, not to mention the past and present history of the CIA and our unwillingness — inability — to confront this past. When did we decide to hold ourselves to a higher standard?
She can’t support this “higher moral standard”, notwithstanding obviously false claims that the “CIA follows the law”: “We followed the law then, we follow the law today,” she lied through her teeth on the floor of the Senate, who noted in 2014 that CIA “interrogation” programs date back to at least the early 60s. Torture is a war crime for which there are “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever,” according to the Convention Against Torture. It is also a war crime under the US Torture Statute, the US War Crimes Act, and the Geneva Conventions. Gina Haspel and the CIA have no excuse.
Her words are telling: there is no “higher standard” that we have held ourselves to as a country since the CIA’s creation. Let’s look at three recent, infamous examples of this so-called “higher standard”: Abu Gharib, Camp Bucca, and Guantanamo Bay.
Guantanamo Bay is still open.
There is no higher standard now, has been no higher standard, and will be no higher standard in the foreseeable future. Let there be no mistake here: the Supreme Court had to rule that the Geneva Conventions applied to all American detainees before the program stopped… nearly a year and a half after the ruling.
Torture cannot be taken seriously enough. All signs point to the fact that even those in charge have begun to admit: it is useless for gathering information and only useful for breeding further radicalism and terrorism, even where these hadn’t existed before. There is no better example of this than Camp Bucca.
Torture is a means of revenge whose only effect is to breed further revenge. It has no place in our country; it only threatens our values. Our lawmakers must hold themselves and our executive branch accountable for what amounts to a real threat to our national security.
I. Abu Gharib
“This government does not torture people.”
— George W. Bush, before the revelation of a CIA torture program.
Abu Gharib. These foreign words still embarrass the American people, who don’t even know what they mean. They conjured up images of shame and hypocrisy long before this nation once again became war-weary. More importantly, these words continue to breed resentment among the people of the Middle East. Indeed, several of the photographs are synonymous with the Iraq war across the world, being the most iconic symbols of the conflict:
According to documents published by Wikileaks, Saudi authorities arrested 250 individuals trying to leave Saudi Arabia to join extremist groups in Afghanistan following the publication of the first Abu Ghraib photos. Our diplomats called evidence of our atrocities “a big favor to Al-Qaeda” and President Obama later opposed the release of any further photographs to avoid giving extremists “the favor of their life.”
“Now Al-Qaeda puts prisoners of ours in orange suits” says Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and counter-terrorism expert. ISIS has followed suit, beheading, burning alive, and detonating prisoners blindfolded and clad in orange jumpsuits — taking a cue from us. It is effective propaganda too, as everyone knows what it is intended to mean: “look at us, we are no worse than the westerners.”
Let’s be perfectly clear here: torture has no use for gathering information. Not even the Senate bought that excuse, and you will hardly find a general or national security expert who still believes it either. It is an understatement to say that there is a consensus that its only effect is to further a vicious cycle of extremism. Which brings us to our next chapter…
II. Camp Bucca
“If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”
— Donald Trump, prior to receiving a standing ovation.
Torture does nothing except create an “appetite for revenge,” Lawrence Wright, journalist and author of The Looming Tower writes. In no place has this been clearer than Camp Bucca: the birthplace of ISIS, the birthplace of the apocalyptic horror which swept the world in 2014:
Abu Ghraib was a prison. Bucca was a “camp.” Our callous terminology regarding human rights violations should be enough to shock any American, let alone the horrifying reality.
Camp Bucca, ironically named after a fire marshal killed on 9/11, was a prison camp used to house secular Ba’athists together with radical Islamists. The ex-governmental forces and guerrillas eventually joined forces to create ISIS. Nine ISIS leaders were incarcerated at Bucca, along with countless other future members:
“Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following,” wrote two experts, “The prisons became virtual terrorist universities,” who went on to compare the existing radicals to professors and the remaining prisoners to students — many of whom previously had nothing to do with terrorism. Even inmates called it “al-Qaeda school.”
Make no mistake: this was a “terrorist university” run under the watch of our military, a fact known to prison commanders at the time. These “camps” worked much like the prisons back home: the perfect recruitment tool for gangs.
But our military just kept shoveling in new recruits by the hundreds, men who otherwise would not have been radicalized: “Simply being a ‘suspicious looking’ military-aged male in the vicinity of an attack was enough to land one behind bars.”
III. Guantanamo Bay
“It is easy to sit back in the armchair and say that torture can never be used.”
— Chuck Schumer, calling the Geneva Conventions “armchair” logic.
“Gitmo” — We even have a nickname for it: a nickname for the factory in which we manufactured terroristic human rights abuses, a nickname for the laboratory we hired doctors to research and develop torture programs in. “Doctors” who invoked the Nuremberg defense — “I was just following orders” — when finally held accountable for their “research,” the same defense that Nazi soldiers and “scientists” used to defend themselves when brought to trial for the horrors of the concentration camps which they perpetrated. Many of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” applied in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were pioneered here.
In early 2013, only six of the 166 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay were facing charges, with forty-six being held “without enough evidence” under the excuse that they were “too dangerous to transfer.” That’s right, only six were facing charges, forty-six detained indefinitely without charges, and the remaining eighty-six cleared for release, yet still being held.
It’s hard to look at how we’ve used — and are using — this facility and come away with any conclusion other than that its sole purpose is to imprison people without the inconveniences of American law or human decency, and even worse, keep them as lab rats subject to unspeakable “tests.”
Guantanamo Bay remains open to this day.
IV. Our Future Rests in our Values
Have we really “decided to hold ourselves to a higher moral standard” while giving standing ovations to a man who says that torture is “deserved” regardless of whether it works? Do we even care about our values when we’re willing to compromise them to extract revenge, regardless of how much these actions threaten our own safety? If the answer is “yes,” when did we do that? If not, what are we going to do about it?
Gina Haspel is a drop in a bucket. It’s time for the American people to demand an end to this pyrrhic, suicidal foreign policy. Bush left us with two wars, Obama with seven. Where will it end?
“My moral compass is strong. I would not allow [the] CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral,” Haspel claimed, “even if it was technically legal I would absolutely not permit it.” Pressed further: “I believe that [the] CIA must undertake activities that are, uh, consistent with American values.”
Such brave words coming from a torturer! One who aided in the destruction of 92 videotapes of torture sessions she “oversaw,” clearly indicating that she knew what she was doing was wrong, or at least illegal. Not once did she even condemn such illegal and useless programs during her testimony last week. When directly asked if she believed torture to be immoral, she instead claimed that she had a strong moral compass! Her words are clearly empty, so let’s finish by taking a look at her moral compass:
Genitals shocked with car batteries, sodomy, severed toenails, human beings savaged by dogs, simulated drowning, “rectal feeding.” These are not “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This is not a “moral compass.”
This is not American, it is disgusting.
This isn’t about them, it’s about us: our conduct, our values, and the future we leave our children. If this is how America “leads by example,” I hope we never meet our children. What a terrifying example we’ve set for them!
I see no reason that Gina Haspel will not be confirmed. It’s par for the course. But this is not a failure on the part of inept Democrats: it is a failure on the part of our democracy.
It is on us: we, the people, who ought to be better than this.