Four Reasons Why Torture (Still) Matters

1. It’s still happening.

Shortly after his first inauguration in 2009, President Obama issued an executive order forbidding torture and closing the CIA’s so-called “black sites.” But the order didn’t end “extraordinary rendition” – the practice of sending prisoners to other countries to be tortured. (This is actually illegal under the U.N. Convention against Torture, which the United States signed in 1994.) And it didn’t close the prison at Guantánamo, where to this day, prisoners are held in solitary confinement.

Periodic hunger strikes are met with brutal force feeding. Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel described the experience in a New York Times op-ed in April 2013:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

The CIA’s black sites may (or may not) have been shut down, but we don’t have any idea what is going on in the detention centers run by the Joint Special Operations Command, especially in parts of Africa. (See Jeremy Scahill’s excellent Dirty Wars for more on this.)

Nor did Obama’s order end torture in another place where it is a daily occurrence, hidden in plain sight: U.S. prisons. It is no accident that the Army reservists responsible for the outrages at Abu Ghraib worked as prison guards in civilian life. As Spec. Charles A. Graner wrote in an email home, about his work at Abu Ghraib, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, “I love to make a grown man piss himself.”

Solitary confinement and the ever-present threat of rape are just two forms of institutionalized torture so commonly suffered by the people who make up the world’s largest prison population. The most recent Guantánamo hunger strikes just happened to coincide with similar actions by people held in solitary confinement in California’s high security prisons.

2. We still don’t have a full, official accounting.

As yet we have no official government accounting of how the United States has used torture in the “war on terror.” This is partly because so many different agencies, clandestine and otherwise, have been involved in one way or another. The Senate Intelligence Committee has written a 6,000-page report just on the CIA’s involvement, which has never been made public. Nor has the Committee been able to shake loose the CIA’s own report on its interrogation program. Most of what we do know is the result of leaks, and the dogged work of dedicated journalists and human rights lawyers. But we have nothing official, on the level, say, of the 1972 Church Committee.

Frustrated because both Congress and the Obama administration were unwilling to demand a full accounting, a blue-ribbon bipartisan committee produced their own damning report. Members included former DEA head Asa Hutchinson, former FBI chief William Sessions, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering. The report reached two important conclusions: 1) “[I] t is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” and, “[T] he nation’s highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture.”

3. No high-level officials have been held accountable for U.S. torture.

Only low-level soldiers like Charles Graner and Lynndie England have done jail time for prisoner abuse in the “war on terror.” None of the “highest officials” (people like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush) have faced any consequences for their part in a program of institutionalized state torture. Early in his first administration, President Obama argued that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past,” but this is not true. Laying blame for the past (and the present) is a precondition for preventing torture in the future, because it would represent a public break with the practice. What “will be gained” is the possibility of developing a public consensus that the United States should not practice torture any longer. Such a consensus about torture does not exist today.

4. Tolerating torture turns us into a nation of cowards.

We tend to think of torture as a set of isolated actions – things desperate people do under desperate circumstances. But institutionalized state torture is really an ongoing, socially-embedded practice. It requires an infrastructure and training. It has its own history, traditions, and rituals of initiation. And – importantly – it creates particular ethical habits in those who practice it, and in any democratic nation that allows it.

Since the brutal attacks of 9/11/2001, people in this country have been encouraged to be afraid. Knowing that our government has been forced to torture people in order to keep us safe confirms the belief that each of us must be in terrible danger, a danger from which only that same government can protect us. There is a word for the moral attitude that sets personal safety as its highest value; the word is cowardice. If we as a nation do not act to end torture, if we do not demand a full accounting and full accountability, we risk becoming a nation of cowards.

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