American Torture

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U.S. troops use the “water cure” in the Philippines, 1902

W.J. Astore

Back in 2009, I wrote a few articles on torture during the Bush/Cheney administration.  With Barack Obama elected on a vague platform of hope, change, and transparency, there was a sense torture would be outlawed and torturers would be called to account.  Obama did sign an executive order to outlaw torture — which really meant nothing more than that the U.S. would abide by international treaties and follow international law with respect to torture — but torturers were never called to account.  The failure to do so has left us with a new president, Donald Trump, who says he supports torture (though his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, does not), and a person nominated to head the CIA who enabled torture and helped to cover it up.

Here are a few points I made back in 2009.  We should consider these as Congress debates whether to place the CIA in the hands of a torturer.

Recently [2009] in the New York Times, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti showed that the Bush administration, the CIA, and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees failed to ask for any historical context before approving so-called “harsh interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, in 2002.  No one apparently knew, or wanted to know, that the U.S. had defined waterboarding as torture and prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II.  Did our leaders think the events of 9-11 constituted an entirely new reality, one in which historical precedent was rendered nugatory?

Perhaps so, but their failure to ask historically-based questions also highlights the narrowness of their intellectual training.  Like the accused Nazi judges before the bar in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), they asked themselves only what the law is (or what it became under John Ashcroft and John Yoo), not whether it is just.  If a legal brief authorized brutal methods such as waterboarding, who were they to question, let alone challenge, the (freshly minted) legal opinion?

Clearly, the leaders making and implementing decisions on torture constituted a single, self-referencing, self-identified Washington elite almost entirely divorced from thinking historically, let alone tragically.  And because they could think neither historically nor tragically, they found false comfort in picturing themselves as stalwart defenders of the nation, not recognizing the mesmerizing power of vengeance and hate.

Our elected officials who find history books too onerous would do well to invest three hours of their time to watch Judgment at Nuremberg.  They might learn that a compromised judiciary will uphold any action — discriminatory race laws, involuntary sterilization, even mass murder — all in the name of defending the people from supposedly apocalyptic threats.

Indeed, defending the country from apocalyptic threats is a popular line for those wishing to uphold the Bush Administration’s policy on torture.  After the tragedy of 9/11, and subsequent panic in the wake of Anthrax attacks, our leaders were compelled to “take the gloves off” in our defense, even compelled to exact vengeance as a way of deterring future attacks — or so these torture apologists claim.

In their haste to make America safe, Bush and Company effectively declared vengeance was theirs and not the Lord’s.  But the human lust for vengeance is blinding, even more so when it’s perceived as righteous.  Here our wrathful lawyers/politicians might consider the lessons of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto.  The hunchbacked court jester, Rigoletto, delights in other people’s misfortune, and for this he is cursed by a cuckolded husband.  Soon, his own daughter, Gilda, the joy of his life, is kidnapped and despoiled, the first bitter fruits of the curse.  Despite Gilda’s pleas to forgive the transgressor, Rigoletto, blinded by his own murderous desire for vengeance, sets in motion a chain of events that ends with the sacrificial death of his beloved Gilda and the annihilation of any vestige of goodness in his tortured soul.

In Rigoletto, the desire for total vengeance produces total tragedy.  In Judgment at Nuremberg, man’s ability to justify the worst crimes in the name of “safeguarding the people” is memorably exposed and justly condemned.

What we need today in Washington are fewer leaders who base their decisions on vengeance empowered by legal briefs and more who are willing to embrace the toughest lessons to be gleaned from history and tragedy.  What we need today as well is our own version of Judgment at Nuremberg — our own special prosecutorial court — one that is unafraid to elevate justice, truth, and the value of a single human being above all other concerns — especially political ones.

A full accounting of the torture decisions made by the Bush Administration would serve powerfully to reassure Americans that their government is, in fact, transparent and accountable to the law.  Such a result would be more than advantageous: It would indirectly strengthen our national defense as well as people’s patriotism.  Far easier it is to trust a government that owns up to its mistakes than one that cloaks them in bombast and bromides.

Self-serving bromides that excuse torture as the price of keeping America safe from evil-doers must be dismissed.  Self-preservation is no excuse for torture or similar war crimes.  It’s easier to see the truth of this when you look at the abuses committed by countries other than one’s own.

Think, for example, of Germany in the opening weeks of World War I.  As John Horne and Alan Kramer have shown in German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001), German soldiers clearly committed atrocities against Belgian civilians.   But the Germans themselves refused to admit culpability.  As Germany’s Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, explained: “We are in a position of necessity and necessity knows no law.”  The court of history, however, has rendered a far different judgment.

When the argument from necessity failed to convince, the Bush administration disputed whether waterboarding actually was torture, even though American soldiers had been punished for it during the Philippine-American War.  Indeed, even in Nazi Germany, government functionaries tried to fight a rear-guard action against the Gestapo and its use of waterboarding.  In a 1979 article on “The Nazi Concentration Camps,” Henry Friedlander cites a complaint made by the Reich Minister of Justice in regards to a murder in 1934 at a concentration camp in Saxony: “The nature of the assault, especially the use of water torture,” the Reich Minister noted, “reveals a brutality and cruelty on the part of the perpetrator that is alien to German sensibilities and feelings.  These cruelties, reminiscent of oriental sadism, can neither be explained nor excused by even the most extreme form of hatred in battle.

If “water torture” was so clearly illegal and so utterly reprehensible to German legal authorities in 1934, even as they battled the baneful influence of Nazism, how can its true nature remain a matter of dispute among some former Bush administration functionaries?

We fancy ourselves to be a nation of laws that apply equally to all.  If our new president truly stands for hope and change, he needs to act appropriately.  “Hope” in this case means full exposure of torture and appropriate punishment for those who authorized and conducted it.  “Change” means accountability for all, even for (especially for) the highest ranking officials in government.

We need a “Truth Commission” to investigate torture.  Efforts to suppress the truth, even seemingly innocuous ones, like looking ahead instead of back, will only make the eventual revelations that much worse.  Delays in holding people accountable may even empower others to commit new war crimes in our name.  Such are the perils of refusing to confront the truth.

Here, the lessons of the French in Algiers continue to resonate.  Think back to the revelations of General Paul Aussaresses in 2001, which scandalized France.  Aussaresses unrepentantly confessed that, in attempting to suppress terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s, detainee abuse, torture, even murder became routine, first-choice, approaches.  The resort to torture simply begat more torture.

Investigators should look at whether this dynamic also applied to America in Afghanistan and Iraq.  How many of our counterterrorist experts became like General Aussaresses: Self-perceived “patriots” who believed torture and even murder were justified in the name of protecting the state?  After all, if the state’s essential purpose is to protect its citizens, and you’re dealing with an enemy that’s malevolently contumacious, as Al Qaeda appeared to be, what’s to stop avowed “patriots” from torturing suspects, especially when the state’s leaders have authorized harsh techniques and are pressing you for results?

In the case of the Bush administration, not only did torture apparently provide unreliable intelligence: It also abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties that forbade torture, and compromised our own ethos of truth, justice, and the American way.

And in the case of the Obama administration, its failure to confront the legacy of torture and to prosecute those responsible helped to facilitate the rise of Trump, a man who boasts of favoring torture while nominating for high office officials who served as torture enablers and supporters.

The words “American” and “torture” are linked together.  Isn’t it time we separated them?

National Insecurity

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What are the real threats that Americans face daily?

Tom EngelhardtTomDispatch.com.

If you want to know just what kind of mental space Washington’s still-growing cult of “national security” would like to take us into, consider a recent comment by retired general and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. In late May on Fox and Friends, he claimed that “the American public would ‘never leave the house’ if they knew what he knew about terrorist threats.”

That seems like a reasonable summary of the national security state’s goal in the post-9/11 era: keep Americans in a fear-filled psychic-lockdown mode when it comes to supposed threats to our safety.  Or put another way, the U.S. is a country in which the growing power of that shadow state and its staggering funding over the last decade and a half has been based largely on the promotion of the dangers of a single relatively small peril to Americans: “terrorism.”  And as commonly used, that term doesn’t even encompass all the acts of political harm, hatred, and intimidation on the landscape, just those caused by a disparate group of Islamic extremists, who employ the tactics by which such terrorism is now defined.  Let’s start with the irony that, despite the trillions of dollars that have poured into the country’s 17 intelligence agencies, its post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon in these years, the damage such terrorists have been able to inflict from Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, while modest in a cumulative sense, has obviously by no means been stopped.  That, in turn, makes the never-ending flow of American taxpayer dollars into what we like to call “national security” seem a poor investment indeed.

To deal with so many of the other perils in American life, it would occur to no one to build a massive and secretive government machinery of prevention. I’m thinking, for instance, of tots who pick up guns left lying around and kill others or themselves, or of men who pick up guns or other weapons and kill their wives or girlfriends. Both those phenomena have been deadlier to citizens of the United States in these years than the danger against which the national security state supposedly defends us. And I’m not even mentioning here the neo-Nazi and other white terrorists who seem to have been given a kind of green light in the Trump era (or even the disturbed Bernie Sanders supporter who just went after congressional Republicans on a ball field in Virginia).  Despite their rising acts of mayhem, there is no suggestion that you need to shelter in place from them. And I’m certainly not going to dwell on the obvious: if you really wanted to protect yourself from one of the most devastating killers this society faces, you might leave your house with alacrity, but you’d never get into your car or any other vehicle. (In 2015, 38,300 people died on American roads and yet constant fear about cars is not a characteristic of this country.)

It’s true that when Islamic terrorists strike, as in two grim incidents in England recently, the media and the security state ramp up our fears to remarkable heights, making Americans increasingly anxious about something that’s unlikely to harm them. Looked at from a different angle, the version of national security on which that shadow state funds itself has some of the obvious hallmarks of both an elaborate sham and scam and yet it is seldom challenged here. It’s become so much a part of the landscape that few even think to question it.

In his latest post, Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies, reminds us that it hasn’t always been so, that there was a moment just a half-century ago when the very idea of American national security was confronted at such a basic level that, ironically, the challenge wasn’t even understood as such. In this particular lockdown moment, however, perhaps it’s worth staying in your house and following Chernus, who’s visited the 1960s before for this website, on a long, strange trip back to 1967 and the famed Summer of Love. Tom

Be sure to read the entire post, “A Psychedelic Spin on National Security,” by Ira Chernus, at TomDispatch.com.  Ah, to have a “summer of love” again!

The Iraqi Surge and Alternative Facts

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An Alternative Fact

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway didn’t invent alternative facts.  The U.S. government has been peddling those for decades.  Consider the recent history of the Iraq War.  Recall that in 2002 it was a “slam dunk” case that Iraq had active programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  (We couldn’t allow the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud, said Condoleezza Rice.) In 2003, President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq – mission accomplished!  And in 2007, the “surge” orchestrated by General David Petraeus was sold as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq.  All of those are “alternative facts.” All were contradicted by the facts on the ground.

Nowadays, most people admit Iraq had no active WMD programs in 2002 and that the mission wasn’t accomplished in 2003, but the success of the surge in 2007 is still being sold as truth, notes Danny Sjursen at TomDispatch.com.  Sjursen, who participated in the surge as a young Army lieutenant, notes that it did succeed in temporarily reducing sectarian violence in Iraq, but that was precisely the problem: it was temporary.  The surge was supposed to allow space for a stable and representative Iraqi government to emerge, but that never happened.

A short-term tactical success, the surge was a strategic failure in the long-term.  Partly this was because long-term success was never in American hands to achieve, and it certainly wasn’t attainable by U.S. military action alone.  In sum, the blood and treasure spilled in Iraq was for naught.  But that harsh truth hasn’t stopped the surge from becoming a myth of U.S. military triumph, one that led to another unsuccessful surge, this time in Afghanistan in 2009-10, also conducted by General Petraeus.

These surges sustain an alternative fact that the U.S. military can “win” messy insurgencies and sectarian/ethnic wars, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen or elsewhere.  They contribute to hubris and the idea we can remake the world by using our military, a belief that President Trump and his bevy of generals (all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan) seem to share and want to put into practice again.  This time, they promise to get it right.

The President and the Pentagon are currently considering sending several thousand more troops to Afghanistan.  This mini-surge is being advertised as America’s best chance of defeating terrorists in the AfPak region.  Even though previous, and much bigger, surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were failures, the alternative fact narrative of “successful” surges remains compelling, even authoritative, among U.S. national security experts.  They may grudgingly admit that, yes, those previous surges weren’t quite perfect, but we’ve learned from those – promise!

Prepare for more troop deployments and more surges, America.  And for more “victories” as alternative facts, as in lies.

General Flynn’s Resignation: A Holy Warrior Derails Himself

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Flynn waiting for an elevator in Trump Tower back in December (NBC)

W.J. Astore

General Michael Flynn’s resignation as National Security Adviser is good news, and not only because of his lack of candor in regards to Russia.  Flynn is a believer in religious war.  He sacralized the war on terror and saw himself as a holy warrior against radical Islamist terrorists.  (Of course, he couldn’t perceive his own extremism and radicalism.)

Both in religious terms and in predatory terms, men like Flynn and Steve Bannon see radical Islamists as the enemy.  These “animals” cut off heads!  A creed war that treats the enemy as animals is a combustible combination.  When you see the enemy as an inferior yet insidious “Other,” there is no opportunity for compromise.  Vermin can only be exterminated.  Especially when they are allegedly out to destroy your “Judeo-Christian” values.

Flynn’s war against radical Islamists would be unending, driven as it would be by outrage against what he saw as a verminous enemy.  In such a “holy” war, killing acquires quasi-sacred meaning.  Flynn’s war was not to be a Clausewitzian war of politics by other means. Nor was it a greed-war driven by money and empire.  His war was far more insidious.

When you conceive of the enemy as predators who simultaneously have the human ability to enslave you with their own creed (Sharia Law): Well, this enemy is a shape-shifting monster. Small wonder that Flynn infamously tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”

What was the source of his fear?  In theory, what is the biggest threat to humans?  Not tigers or snakes or other predators; they can be identified.  The biggest threat is something human but not quite human.  Something that looks human, has human skills, human smarts, but is ruthlessly inhuman, even as it readily blends in with “normal” humans.

The tight Islamophobic circle around Trump (one weaker, with Flynn’s resignation) appears to view Muslims in this way.  It’s a little like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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They look like us — act like us — and that’s precisely the problem!  Even a five-year-old Muslim refugee, no matter how innocent-looking, is seen by Sean Spicer and crew as an opening to an unstoppable invasion of America, hence Trump’s hurried and sweeping ban on Muslim immigration.

Flynn’s ideology supported the dynamic of permanent religious war.  His writings and tweets were consistent with an exterminatory struggle for existence of the worst kind.  His actions and views would only perpetuate jihad, a struggle he apparently sees as inevitable.

Until we neutralize jihadists like Flynn (and Bannon) and his Islamist counterparts, until we see a common humanity instead of viewing the enemy as insanely ferocious predators who are out to destroy our way of life, there is no hope for even a semblance of peace in this world.

The Attack in Nice, France

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W.J. Astore

In Nice, France, 84 people were killed by a maniac who drove a truck into a crowd on Bastille Day (French Independence Day).  The driver, identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was a French-Tunisian with a criminal record but with no known terrorist links.

Much remains unknown about this attack.  Was the driver acting alone?  Was he “radicalized,” killing for a political/religious purpose?  Was he working with a terrorist sect, or perhaps he sympathized with one?  We should be careful not to jump to conclusions.

I want to make one rather obvious point: It’s easy to politicize such horrendous attacks. It’s easy to say things like: “It’s all the fault of radical Islam!  The West is at war with radical Islam!  Muslim immigrants are to blame!”  And so on. Before reaching any conclusions, let’s gather all the evidence.

There’s a natural tendency to resort to the rhetoric of warfare here.  Politicians are especially prone to this.  And if you don’t agree with them, they dismiss you as naive or delusional — or worse.

The problem with warfare rhetoric is that it answers questions before they’re even asked. It imposes solutions before you even fully understand the problem.  For example, if it’s a “war,” the inevitable solution is more militarization.  More surveillance.  More police. More weapons.  Perhaps more military strikes as well.

But what if more military strikes actually aggravate the problem?  What if more police, more surveillance, more raids combine to abridge the freedoms that France fought for, the very freedoms which the French celebrate each year on Bastille Day?

Liberty, equality, and fraternity are noble goals.  They need always to be nourished and protected, not just from terrorists and other criminals, but from those in authority who may overreact in the name of protecting the people.

Guns and Grievances

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Guns look way too cool in our movies

W.J. Astore

The news out of Orlando is shocking.  Another mass shooting in America.  Another 50+ people dead with an additional 50+ wounded.  And then I saw this headline:

“America has 4.4% of the world’s population, but almost 50% of the civilian-owned guns around the world”

The ready availability of guns in America, to include military-style assault weapons with 30-round clips, makes it far easier for shooters bent on murder to kill large numbers of people.  It doesn’t matter what you call these shooters, whether you label them terrorists or lone wolves or crazed lunatics or whatever.  Apparently the latest shooter bought his guns legally, had a grievance against gay people, expressed some last-minute allegiance to ISIS, and then started blasting away at innocent people in a club that was friendly to gays.

Sure, guns alone are not to blame.  The primary person to blame is the shooter/murderer himself.  But (to repeat myself) the guns sure make it a lot easier to kill, and in large numbers.

We live in a sick society, often a very violent one, certainly a disturbed one, one that places enormous stress on people.  Another exceptional headline that I first heard on Bill Maher is that America, again with 4.4% of the world’s population, takes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.

Guns and drugs – the two don’t mix, even when they’re legal.   Americans are over-armed and over-medicated.  Add to that mix the fact that Americans are under-educated, at least compared to our peers in the developed world, and you truly have a toxic brew.

Over-armed, over-medicated, and under-educated: surely this is not what our leaders have in mind when they call us the exceptional nation, the indispensable one, the greatest on earth.  Is it?

 

 

The Right Approach to Terrorism

A replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels tourist attraction, is seen among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels metro and Brussels international airport of Zaventem, in Brussels
Replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels attraction, among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels. REUTERS/Yves Herman

W.J. Astore

I grew up during the Cold War when America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union posed a clear and present danger to our country’s very existence.  Since the collapse of the USSR, or in other words the last 25 years, the U.S. has not faced an existential threat.  Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were shocking and devastating, as were recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.  But terrorism was and is nothing new.  We faced it in the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed we will probably always face it.  The question is how best to face it.

Stoking fear among the people is the wrong way to face it.  Restricting liberty is the wrong way.  An overly kinetic approach (i.e. lots of bombs and bullets) is the wrong way.  Invading the Middle East (yet again) is the wrong way.  Most of counter-terrorism, it seems to me, is an exercise in intelligence and policing (national and international).  Yet we seem always to turn to our military to solve problems.  The emphasis is relentlessly tactical/operational, stressing how many terrorists we kill in drone strikes and special ops raids (a version of the old “body count” from the Vietnam War era).

Military strikes and raids generate collateral damage and blowback, arguably creating more enemies than they kill.  We’re helping to sustain a perpetual killing machine, a feedback loop.  The more we “hit” various enemies while playing up the dangers of terrorism, especially in the media, the more they prosper in regards to attention (and recruits) they garner.

One of the first Rand primers I read as young Air Force lieutenant was “International Terrorism: The Other World War,” written by Brian M. Jenkins in 1985.  Jenkins made many excellent points: that terrorists seek to instill fear, that their acts are mainly “aimed at the people watching,” that terrorism can’t be defeated like traditional (uniformed) enemies, that terrorists commit crimes for a larger political purpose (“causing widespread disorder, demoralizing society, and breaking down existing social and political order”), that terrorism is a form of political theater.  As Jenkins notes:

“Terrorism attracts intense interest but produces little understanding.  News coverage focuses on action not words.  Terrorist incidents attract the media because they are genuine human dramas, different from ordinary murder and therefore newsworthy. “

Furthermore, “terrorists provide few lucrative targets for conventional military attack,” though this may be less true of state-sponsored terrorism.

What can we learn from Jenkins’s primer on terrorism?  Three big lessons:

  1. Deny the terrorists their victory by refusing to succumb to fear. In short, don’t panic.  And don’t exaggerate the threat.
  2. Don’t sensationalize the feats of terrorists in 24/7 media coverage of their attacks. That’s what the terrorists want.  They want extensive media coverage, not only to shift public opinion and to spread fear, but also to recruit new members.
  3. Finally, don’t change your way of life, your political system, your liberties, in response to terrorism. Abridging freedoms or marginalizing people (e.g. American Muslims) in the name of attacking terrorism is exactly what the terrorists want.  They want to turn people against one another.  To divide is to conquer.

The question is, when will Americans recognize the complexity of the terrorist threat while minimizing fear and over-reaction?

Terrorists need to be stopped, and that requires robust intelligence gathering, strong policing, and selective military action.  But threat inflation, media hysteria, and militarized over-reaction simply play into the terrorists’ hands.  Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert wrote.  Let us always remember this as we face the terrorist threat with firmness and resolve.