When It Comes To Torture, The Past Is Still Present

By Noah Berlatsky

Donald Trump, keeping it classy as always, called Ted Cruz a “pussy” on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. The insult got significantly more press than its context. Trump questioned Cruz’s manhood because, during the Saturday debate, Cruz was insufficiently enthusiastic about torturing those suspected of terrorism via waterboarding. Trump, in contrast, declared: “Not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on. I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring it back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Trump has been reluctant to define what “worse than waterboarding” means, but the reference to the Middle Ages suggests he would like his audience to think about the rack and branding irons.

What was most shocking about Trump’s support of torture, though, is that it’s not all that surprising. Though waterboarding was suspended during the Bush administration, repudiated by Obama, and is officially illegal, it continues to enjoy substantial support on the right. Cruz didn’t repudiate the method; he just said he’d use it only in extreme circumstances. In line with Bush administration excuses, and contra international and Amrican law, he also claimed that waterboarding is not torture. Rubio chimed in to say that he thought the U.S. should use waterboarding too. All of the polling frontrunners for the Republican nomination, in short, are on record supporting torture. Which means that there’s a pretty good chance that sometime soon, America will once again sanction waterboarding.

Though, the truth is, you could argue that America sanctions torture now. Obama said officially that he was ending America’s torture program. But when he came into office, he decided not to try to prosecute any CIA operatives who followed Bush administration orders to engage in torture. He didn’t prosecute any of the administration officials, like John Woo, who put together the shaky authorization memos declaring torture was legal.

Obama was concerned that prosecutions for torture would be overly partisan — though the truth is that there were Democrats who could have been held accountable as well. Nancy Pelosi was briefed about torture techniques in 2003. There was plenty of complicity to go around, which was exactly the problem. A thorough investigation of torture would have meant a difficult, bruising struggle against powerful individuals and constituencies in both parties, and a major battle with the CIA. Obama was more interested in tackling the financial crisis and in pushing forward on the stimulus bill and health care.

On April 16, 2009, The Department of Justice released memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005 as part of an ongoing court case, outlining the techniques that were used in the interrogation of terrorism suspects during that period. Obama concluded his statement on the memos with:

“This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Obama’s statement there could also be used as a concise summary of the rationale against reparations. Reparations for crimes against black people are, precisely, a call for the United States to spend time, energy, and, of course, money, to lay blame for the past. Those arguing for reparations insist on looking backwards, and that act of looking backwards — politicians fear — will turn us to salt, or, at least, undermine other progressive legislation. Bernie Sanders rejected reparations as “divisive” — a word Obama could well have used to encapsulate his fears that torture prosecutions would lead to partisan gridlock.

The problem with refusing to look backwards — as the torture discussion shows — is that the past has a way of stalking the present. Because Obama, and the U.S. in general, refused to meaningfully reject past waterboarding and “enhanced interrogation” torture (and all its euphemisms) these tactics remain an acceptable policy choice. Without the difficult work of laying blame, no blame gets laid, which means that the mainstream of one party continues to think these tactics blameless — and is ready to pick them up again.

Again, there’s a parallel with reparations, where America’s reluctance to look backwards at racial injustice enables that injustice to continue — not least through torture. Torture was, obviously, a central part of slavery. Edward Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told explains that the main technological advance in cotton production was not the gin, but the development of systematic whipping to drive faster and faster production.

What’s less acknowledged, though, is the way that torture of black people persists. America’s prison system is a vast engine of terror and violence, hidden behind thick walls, where politicians and the public don’t have to see it or think about it. There are an estimated 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day in the U.S. Meanwhile the UN has condemned prolonged solitary confinement as torture.

The physical and psychological fallout has been well-documented and is horrific, pushing people to self-harm and suicide. Given the disproportionate representation of black people in U.S. prisons, it’s not hard to see the continuities with the past. America used to torture black people as official state policy, then we moved on…to torturing black people as official state policy. The past isn’t even past, as they say.

In Chicago, police tortured black suspects for decades, eliciting false confessions which put at least 100 people in jail on false convictions. Last year, activists finally managed to get Chicago to acknowledge the injustice, passing a torture reparations bill that provided $5.5 million in recompense for 50 torture victims, offering a formal apology, and setting up a memorial and a community center on the South Side, where most of the victims lived.

The reparations aren’t enough however. Some of those tortured remain in prison to this day, waiting exoneration. Meanwhile, mayor Richard Daley, who as a prosecutor advanced his political fortune through convictions based on confessions he had reason to believe were based on torture, has never been prosecuted. But at least there is not an argument anymore in Chicago about whether what Commander Jon Burge did to black men counts as “torture,” or whether it was justified.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument for reparations is not simply that reparations are just. It’s that the United States can’t be a just society now, today, without coming to terms with its past history of inequity, brutality, and plunder. How can we keep from torturing people in the present and the future if we can’t find the resources to hold ourselves accountable for torture in the past? The GOP’s ongoing love affair with waterboarding, and America’s brutal gulag, both demonstrate that a past ignored, is a past that doesn’t go away.