Cleanup Task for a Shining City

“America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”

 – Ronald Reagan, 1974, echoing John Winthrop, 1630 –

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 exceptional.

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