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From the earliest days of our republic, Americans have been drawn to the idea of
their nation as different, exceptional, an example for others. Sometimes that
view has been shared by outsiders, who really did strive to be guided by our
“beacon light,” and sometimes not. Never mind: We came up with the notion of
ourselves as an exception, and over time we have become exceptional–though not
because we are morally superior to anyone else. We are exceptional because we
periodically feel obliged to hold our most senior leaders to standards with
which others might not comply. We made Nixon resign. We made Clinton testify.
Sooner or later, we will also have to hold accountable the American leaders who
ordered American citizens to torture prisoners who were captured in Afghanistan
and elsewhere, in violation both of our Constitution and of international
conventions we ratified long ago.
I say “American leaders” quite deliberately: Before any investigation has
taken place, it is pointless to name names and needlessly politicize what should
in principle be a neutral legal process. That crimes were committed is no longer
in doubt. Mark Danner, writing in the New York Review of Books, has just
published excerpts from a previously confidential report by the International
Committee of the Red Cross on the interrogation methods used by the CIA in its
“black site” prisons. Unlike Guantanamo Bay in its current incarnation, these
prisons did not ever officially exist. They are, or were, in the cellars of
military bases in Afghanistan or in the back rooms of Thai, Moroccan or perhaps
Eastern European jails.
They may not have held hundreds or even dozens of prisoners. The Red Cross
report, based on interviews its officials conducted in 2006, mentions only 14
detainees. Yet the horror of the CIA interrogation tactics in these places lies
not in their scale but in the doggedness with which they defied American and
international law. “Waterboarding” is one of the more benign methods on a list
of “alternative” interrogation methods that included many hours of forced
standing, nudity, beating and kicking, confinement in a box, sleep deprivation,
and exposure to cold. Detainees spoke of being “strapped to a bed, in a very
white room,” of being smashed “repeatedly against the hard walls of the room,”
of being forced to listen to unbearably loud music and deprived of solid food.
Describing these techniques, Red Cross officials deliberately use the word
“torture,” with all of its legal and moral connotations.
These techniques, horrific in and of themselves, did deep political damage.
As I have written before, and as Danner concurs, there is still no evidence that
information obtained through torture was of any special value: People under
extreme physical stress will say anything to make the pain stop. On the other
hand, there is plenty of evidence that the use of torture damaged some of the
central goals of what I am still happy to call the war on terror. Certainly the
use of these techniques made it impossible to publicly try the 14 men, so that
the whole world could hear of their horrific crimes and feel disgust for their
cause. The confessions of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed–mastermind of the Sept. 11
attacks and one of the 14 “special” detainees–were widely ignored two years ago
precisely because many people assumed, rightly, that these confessions were
obtained using torture. Certainly the knowledge that Americans use torture
alienated millions of potential allies, in the Muslim world and outside it,
convincing them that America is “no different,” after all, from the fanatics it
is fighting. As Danner put it, “we freely chose to become the caricature they
made of us.”
But the political rights and wrongs of this failed policy are no longer the
point. What matters now is that our laws be enforced. The United States is not
and never was a fascist state, and the CIA prisons were not and never were the
Gulag. These 14 men were not tortured as part of an ordinary and accepted
routine, in other words, but according to special rules and procedures, set up
at the highest level of government, by people who surely knew that they were
illegal; otherwise, they would not have limited them so carefully. What we need
now, therefore, is not an endless, politicized circus of a congressional
investigation into every aspect of George W. Bush’s White House but a carefully
targeted legal investigation of the CIA’s invisible prisons: who gave the orders
to use torture, who carried out the orders, what exactly was done, who objected.
The guilty, however senior, should be named, forced to testify and called to
account–because the rule of law, and nothing else, is what makes us
Anne Applebaum is an adjunct fellow at AEI.
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