When I was younger I read about torture in other countries and times, with a sense of fear and revulsion. Later I learned about the School of Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia (since renamed as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). There, the US Army trains Latin American security personnel using training manuals that advocate torture, extortion, and execution. Graduates of the School, including notorious dictators, are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America. But I sought a scintilla of relief in the idea that the torture didn’t actually happen here.
In recent years, I learned about the CIA rendition program, set up during the Clinton administration, and expanded under Bush, in which people are kidnapped and transferred to countries that practice torture, thus violating the long-standing international legal principle of nonrefoulement. Again, one might grasp for a moral distinction between enacting and simply aiding torture. When we learned about Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse, we saw that, too, as far away. We were told that it wasn’t actually authorized, even though official rhetoric and policies might have set the stage for it.
In all of these cases, we kept grasping for distinctions–someone else carried out the torture, even though we taught them how to do it; some other country’s laws were barbaric, though we kidnapped people, denied them trial, and took them there, knowing full well, even desiring, what would happen; some low-level soldier abused, even killed detainees, but we had trained them, defined their mission, demonized the people they were sent to aid, and then conveniently looked the other way.
Throughout, we kept asserting that while we associate with others who do unspeakable things, we don’t do it ourselves. After all, if we were to begin to engage in torture, where would it end? How would we be any different from those dictatorships and totalitarian regimes?
We’re even uneasy talking about it:
As recently as last month, the administration had never publicly acknowledged that its policymakers knew about the specific techniques, such as waterboarding, that the agency used against high-ranking terrorism suspects. In her unprecedented account to lawmakers last month, [Condoleezza] Rice, now secretary of state, portrayed the White House as initially uneasy about a controversial CIA plan for interrogating top al-Qaeda suspects.
Last week we learned that, well, we don’t just train others to torture; we don’t just write training manuals for torture; we don’t just ship people off to countries that torture; we don’t just have a few aberrant soldiers who stray from the official line:
The Bush administration issued a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004 that explicitly endorsed the agency’s use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding against al-Qaeda suspects — documents prompted by worries among intelligence officials about a possible backlash if details of the program became public.
In this case, the CIA itself knew it was crossing the line, that there could be a public backlash directed at them. It insisted on written authorization before continuing.
The Bush administration quickly complied. Why? Because, like the many Latin American dictators who had been trained by the School of Americas, they thought the torture would serve their purposes and they knew they could get away with it. Americans who had learned to accept the School of Americas, the CIA rendition program, and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, had become all too ready to accept that it does actually happen here. And it’s not just someone else who does it. It’s not against policy. It is the policy, and it’s our leaders who make it happen.
Mayer, Jane (2005, November 14). A deadly interrogation: Can the C.I.A. legally kill a prisoner?. The New Yorker.
Warrick, Joby (2008, October 15). CIA tactics endorsed in secret memos: Waterboarding got White House nod. Washington Post.