The Banality of Evil, Redux

The great and wonderful Dahlia Lithwick reflects on the Bush administration’s less-than-lucid explanations for why they turned the Bush administration into a torture regime. They just don’t really know why, but they meant well:

It isn’t easy to justify torture. It does, after all, violate centuries’ worth of human rights norms and international and domestic law. It has famously been used by the Nazis and Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Kim Il-Sung—not really the kinds of folk we usually strive to emulate. And as professor Darius Rejali explains in his superb Torture and Democracy, it also doesn’t work, at least not as a means of extracting useful information. It doesn’t work because, among other things, torture leads to false confessions, because interrogators are not skilled at detecting false confessions, and because tortured prisoners are inclined to misremember and misstate what information they do know. You would think that having decided to permit torture, in the face of all these legal, moral, and practical objections, those members of the Bush administration who did so could assemble a coherent defense: We tortured because it works; we tortured because nothing else worked better. We tortured because after careful consideration, it was worth the moral price we paid. But as Congress begins the painful process of tracing the origins of the government’s abusive interrogation program, its members are now confronted by the last refuge of torturers everywhere: We tortured with the very best of intentions.

Before the Senate armed services committee this week, some Bush administration officials offered up the hazy recollections, circuitous chains of command, and the passing of the buck that are the hallmarks of any such investigation. The lowlight came Tuesday with the Senate testimony of William J. Haynes II, former general counsel of the Department of Defense. If suspending the Geneva Conventions, then reverse-engineering torture-resisting techniques taught at the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School for use against prisoners had worked so well in the summer of 2002, you might think a Jack Nicholson moment would have been nigh this week. You might imagine someone brave would leap to his feet before the Senate committee and holler, “Yes, I walked on the dark side, and it saved you all!” But nobody seemed willing to explain or justify the momentous decision to violate the legal ban on torture. What we heard instead was that desperate times called for desperate measures, and thus any old desperate measure would do.

Arguably even worse than making excuses for torture is making excuses for why the architects of torture should be allowed to get away with their crimes. Now that it’s considered acceptable to acknowledge and condemn Bush’s torture regime, the new outré position is war crimes trials. Chris Floyd has a superb piece about this, in which he contrasts this recent statement made by Antonio Taguba:

“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account…The commander-in-chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.”

with an LA Times op-ed by Timothy Rutten:

By week’s end, the evidence that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other top government officials had deliberately created a system of torture which they knew was illegal – indeed, a capital crime – under U.S. law was so plain, so overwhelming, and so handily concentrated that it broke through the levees of institutional cover-up and media complicity that had held this clear truth at bay for so long. The grim facts had finally worked their way into “conventional wisdom.” It was now permissible for good “centrist” folk to speak of such things, even condemn them, without being automatically relegated to ranks of “the haters,” the “unserious,” the “shrill partisans,” etc.

And yet, even as this new consensus was forming, you could see the sandbags piling up in the background to make sure that the water didn’t reach too far. A line of defense was being laid that would allow the purveyors of conventional wisdom to vent a bit of righteous outrage at official wrongdoing without actually having to do anything about it or admitting of any flaws in their fundamentalist doctrine of American exceptionalism. No one need take any risks, make any effort, or discomfort themselves in any way to rectify the injustice; indeed, even the perpetrators should be left undisturbed. Instead, our uniquely good and smooth-running political system will magically make everything all better, and somehow prevent the bad things from happening again.

This nascent coventional wisdom line was perfectly illustrated in a new piece by Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times. Rutten is a lifelong newsman, a liberal of the old school, whose columns have been scathing in their criticism of Bush and all his works. In his latest outing, Rutten doesn’t flinch from telling it like it is on Bush’s torture regime. Drawing on the Congressional hearings and other sources, Rutten gives chapter and verse on “how the White House forced the adoption of torture as state policy of the United States.”


In paragraph after paragraph, Rutten marshals the evidence that “has established definitively that the drive to make torture an instrument of U.S. policy originated at the highest levels of the Bush administration.” He notes that the panicky reaction to these revelations in right-wing bastions like the Wall Street Journal “stems from an anxiety that congressional inquiries, like that of [the Senate] committee, will lead to indictments and possibly even war crimes trials for officials who participated in the administration’s deliberations over torture and the treatment of prisoners.”

In short, Rutten – an experienced, respected, liberal journalist writing for one of the largest newspapers in the land – lays out a compelling case that the President of the United States and his chief officers have committed capital crimes under American law. And what does he propose we do about it?


Absolutely nothing. In fact, he relegates all those who would seek redress of these high crimes to – where else? – the ranks of the unserious, the cranks, the effete whiners:

It’s true that there are a handful of European rights activists and people on the lacy left fringe of American politics who would dearly like to see such trials, but actually pursuing them would be a profound — even tragic — mistake. Our political system works as smoothly as it does, in part, because we’ve never criminalized differences over policy. Since Andrew Jackson’s time, our electoral victors celebrate by throwing the losers out of work — not into jail cells.

“The cognitive dissonance of this conclusion,” Chris writes, “was so painful and severe that I had to read it several times to fully take in that it meant exactly what it said:

Rutten believes with all his heart that the official practice of deliberate, systematic torture – a clear and unambiguous war crime which he himself has just outlined in careful detail – is ultimately nothing more than a “wretched mistake,” a “policy difference” that should not be “criminalized.” And how can this be? The answer is obvious, if unspoken: because it was done by the United States government – and nothing the United States government ever does can possibly be criminal, or evil. It can only be, at most, a mistake, a conceptual error, an ill-considered policy, a botched attempt at carrying out a noble intention.

And so we have the jarring (to say the least) spectacle of the U.S. government doing everything in its power to stage war crimes trials at Guantanamo Bay, while desperately working to avoid its senior officials being tried for war crimes at home.

We have the startling contrast of reading belligerent boasts about the U.S. “liberating 53 million people from the boot of Islamic tyranny” and then turning to a news article about the first Gitmo detainee since Boumediene to request a habeus corpus hearing: a Syrian named Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al Ginco who was captured and detained by the United States for being “an enemy combatant” after being brutally tortured by the Taliban for being a U.S. spy.

For anyone who is still clinging to the notion that psychological brutality is not torture, this article by Clive Stafford Smith in The Guardian might lead to some questioning of that unexamined belief. Even torturers call it “torture lite” — but they use it, because it works. One prisoner at Guantanamo, a British citizen named Binyam Mohamed, described what it felt like:

“Imagine you are given a choice,” he said. “Lose your sight or lose your mind.” While having your eyes gouged out would be horrendous, there is little doubt which you would choose. Mohamed remains in Guantánamo. The US military will decide, probably within two weeks, whether to go forward with a military commission, based on “evidence” that was tortured out of him.

To those who have the misfortune to study torture, all this is old hat. Members of the IRA interned in Northern Ireland in the 1970s recall the use of loud noise, piped into their cells, as the worst aspect of their ordeal. One Guantánamo interrogator blithely estimated that it would take about four days to “break” someone, if the interrogation sessions were interspersed with strobe lights and loud music. “Break” is another euphemism that is bandied about among torturers, as if “breaking” a person was some kind of psychological truth serum. Of course, the “results” you get from a “broken” prisoner have little to do with truth.

Hat tip to Cursor for the above links.

One Response to “The Banality of Evil, Redux”

  1. Chief says:

    Policy differences, we can live with. And we wouldn’t survive as a country if each administration went after their predecessor with a vengeance.

    But there is a huge, nay, gigantic distinction between a policy difference and an egregious violation of the laws of civilized conduct.

    Unfortunately, I do not see the Obama administration pursuing any prosecutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook