Who We Are or Think We Are

It’s probably best not to know what your government is doing, or what it has done. In spite of what Lincoln said at Gettysburg so many years ago, that we have a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we’ve been told that’s just not true anymore – that’s not us, the government is something else, working against us, run by people who don’t care about us, if they even think about us at all. Barry Goldwater, who you could say was a principled libertarian, starting us off in thinking that way, and Ronald Reagan sealed the deal. The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help. You see, government never helps. And George Bush did his level best to prove that. The folks in New Orleans understand that, those who lived. Lincoln was wrong, or that was so long ago that what he said has nothing to do with our world now.

So, if your government is an alien entity, taking your money and doing stupid things, you can get all angry and do that Grover Norquist thing and work to undermine all of its functions until it is so weak that, as he said, you can do the right thing and drown it the bathtub and be done with it. Then we’ll all be free and happy. Or you can decide it is just one more giant anonymous institution that has nothing to do with you and your life, and about which you cannot do a damned thing anyway, and which certainly isn’t going away – and ignore it. You know, pay your taxes and go about your business – do your job (if you still have one) and play with the kids when you get home. You don’t live in Washington and what goes on there isn’t even that interesting.

Of course it never works out that way. Some things can get under your skin, like basic matters of public safety and common decency. If Bush decides we need a war, and almost no one in the world agrees with him, and he takes us to war anyway, that might interest you. He did say our very survival depended on it – you and your wife and kids could die a horrible death if we waited even a moment. Those who said he was full of crap had to be wrong. No president would lie to us, at least about something like that. And it turned out that none of what he had said was true, but then all the pundits on Fox News said that, if you looked at the war in more subtle ways, it’s obvious that we did just what we should have done, even if no one mentioned those subtleties at the time. Raise a question about that notion and you’d be asked if you wanted that murderous idiot Saddam Hussein still to be in power over in those parts. Of course you’d say no, and they’d say, see, you agree with everything Bush did. There was no point in arguing any further after that. What would be the point? And what was done was done. You can’t go back in time and undo a war.

As for common decency, the current healthcare reform debate, or argument, or shouting match, might get under your skin too. Sure, almost fifty million people are without health insurance, and thus have no health care at all, beyond dropping by the local emergency room as a last resort. And those with insurance often find it doesn’t cover what they were told it did and they’re going bankrupt right and left, losing everything. People are dying. This cannot be right. Every other industrialized nation has some sort of system where none of that is possible. Maybe we should join the civilized world and set up something of some sort where everyone chips in a bit so no one has to watch their kids die because they cannot afford what doctors and hospitals charge so that doesn’t happen.

But then there’s that business about chipping in. This is America, where people are free to succeed, and even get rich, or fail and have nothing, or muddle about somewhere between the two. We’re not communists singing silly songs about from each according to his means to each according to his needs and the joy of solidarity. We’re Americans and we don’t share, or at least we allow no public mechanisms that force us to share. Sharing is supposed to be voluntary. After all, we earned what we earned and, damn it, we should be allowed to keep what we earned. Having any of that taken from us against our will just wouldn’t be right. And all the variations of healthcare reform, which are confusing enough on their own, seem to involve just that. People who have, because they worked hard and succeeded, would be forced to subsidize those who didn’t work hard and have not. Is that fair? Don’t you get angry at the whole notion?

But then there are the people losing everything, and the people who are dying. If you’re a conservative evangelical Christian you say God wanted it this way – that’s how you tell just who are God’s chosen, which would be those who worked hard and can keep their immediate family not only alive but healthy. God obviously frowns upon the others. If you’re the other sort of Christian you think Jesus wasn’t a goofy kidder and everyone should chip in and end this madness. Using the government to do that is simply the most efficient and effective way to do that quickly. If you’re an atheist you might be thinking of common decency, one of those secular humanist concepts, or just seeing things in a utilitarian way – not fixing this is no way to run a country. It’s an incredibly stupid waste of human capital. But no matter which it is, the whole business can weigh on your mind. You find yourself thinking of government.

And course somehow government also gets tied up in how we think about ourselves, as you can say things about who you are in terms of work – I’m a teacher or I’m and accountant or I’m a policeman or whatever – or in terms of your personal history – I’m a Gemini from Pittsburgh who lives in Hollywood but used to hang around Paris a lot – or whatever you choose. But most people include the obvious – that they’re an American. And you know what you mean by that. Americans are the good guys. We invent cool things, we save the world from the bad guys, we’re optimistic and straight-forward, and happy and unpretentious, and we have awesome pastrami on rye in New York and even better coffee in Seattle. And you are one of these people – and you like it. You’re not French, after all. You count your blessings. You’re okay with what Abe Lincoln said after all.

But then something comes up, as it did on Monday, August 24, 2009 – the release of this report. It seems we really did torture people, and there’s no way to sugar-coat it. And the report has everyone scrambling for some way to explain this, as Dahlia Lithwick summarized in this one paragraph:

The release of the CIA Inspector General report yesterday, and the accompanying news that Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed John Durham to probe nearly a dozen cases in which CIA employees crossed the line into prisoner abuse, has divided the country into two now-familiar camps. Proponents of brutal torture (and some now proudly claim to be just that) continue to assert that torture works and that, in the words of Dick Cheney, those who carried out the interrogations “deserve our gratitude” and don’t deserve “to be the targets of political investigations or prosecutions.” Meanwhile, opponents of torture are, in the main, incensed that Durham’s mandate is to go after only a small handful of hapless bad apples without scrutinizing the lawyers and policymakers who created the legal climate in which eliciting intelligence became more important than following the law.

Your government isn’t an alien entity any longer. It is tied up in how you want to think of yourself, as an American. Are you the bold and ruthless do-anything-necessary type, or the quietly-do-the-right-thing and don’t debase yourself type?

Now you have to choose sides, and as usual, Hollywood has a lot to answer for. Over at the National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg claims that because one particular series and any number of movies show good guys torturing bad guys to get information, these cultural products are “tapping into and reflecting the popular moral sentiments.”

Anonymous Liberal is having none of that:

When you are shown unequivocally that the person being tortured is an evil mass murderer and that the person doing the torturing is a pure-hearted hero – and you are then shown that the torture in fact leads to the disclosure of information that saves a bunch of children’s’ lives – it is no wonder that viewers are prepared to morally absolve the torturer. That moral conclusion is being spoon-fed to them in the form of a highly-stacked utilitarian calculus. The thumb is pressing down quite hard on the scale. If, on the other hand, you were to tell a different story, say one involving a detainee of questionable guilt being brutally beaten to death with a flashlight (as described in the Inspector General’s report), you would likely elicit a very different emotional response.

Is that’s what is in that? Glenn Greenwald has read it all (what wasn’t blacked out) and at Salon wonders about us all:

The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle – all things that we have always condemned as “torture” and which our laws explicity criminalize as felonies (“torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering…”) – reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.

Well, he is right about the law. Is he right about Americans, or what Americans have become?

He says, actually, it’s worse than that:

Perhaps worst of all, the Report notes that many of the detainees who were subjected to this treatment were so treated due to “assessments that were unsupported by credible intelligence” – meaning there was no real reason to think they had done anything wrong whatsoever. As has been known for quite some time, many of the people who were tortured by the United States were completely innocent – guilty of absolutely nothing.

Actually, he understates the real issue there. We decided, without any real proof, that these guys were going to do this that or the other thing, and the effort was to somehow get them to tell us exactly what we thought we ought to be hearing. It’s not much different than anything from the Spanish Inquisition or Stalinist Russia – you do these things to get these folks to say what you want them to say, to prove you’re right, even if you have no evidence of anything of the sort. Hell, back in Salem even the little girls finally screamed out that they really were witches. Maybe they were. You never know.

As for what is in the report, at Obsidian Wings, Publius offers a quick summary:

The highlights include: (1) mock executions; (2) threatened rape of family members; (3) threatened murder of children; (4) kicking and beating a detainee with a metal flashlight to death; (5) threatening naked hooded detainees with power drills; (6) blowing cigar smoke in detainees’ faces until they got sick; (7) waterboarding with massive volumes of water far beyond what White House Office of Legal Counsel authorized (to make it “poignant”); (8) stress positions that nearly caused shoulder dislocations; (9) scraping detainees with stiff brushes; (10) choking a detainee with one’s bare hands until they nearly pass out; (11) subjecting detainees to extremely cold temperatures and water dousing; (12) “hard takedowns” (sometimes in diapers); and (13) beating detainees with butts of rifles (followed by kicking them).

That is very American, or it isn’t. After hearing that a CIA interrogator threatened to kill the children of a detainee, at least Julian Sanchez feels shame:

I guess what especially turns my stomach here is that the idea wasn’t just to inflict mental anguish on a presumably odious man in order to extract information. It was to inflict that pain by exploiting, as a weakness, whatever flicker of nobility or love remained in an otherwise wretched soul. It was a method of torture that would have been effective only because and to the extent there was something human left in him. Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but every cell in my body is telling me this is sick and wrong.

Are Americans too overly sentimental? Cheney might say so. And Andrew Sullivan adds this:

I wish I could say I am shocked, but when one of the chief architects of the torture memos testifies that the president has the inherent constitutional right to crush the testicles of a child, none of us should be.

Well, the man who wrote the legal memos that said every bit of all this was quite legal, John Yoo, did say that.

But the Associated Press notes this wasn’t sadism or anything like that, just all-American casual improvisation:

With just two weeks of training, or about half the time it takes to become a truck driver, the CIA certified its spies as interrogation experts after 9/11 and handed them the keys to the most coercive tactics in the agency’s arsenal.

It was a haphazard process, cobbled together in the months following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington by an agency that had never been in the interrogation business. The result was a patchwork program in which rules kept shifting and the goals often were unclear.

We don’t like snooty experts. We’re Americans. Anyone can do any job. And you learn by doing:

If it was a terrifying process for the detainees, it was a bureaucratic nightmare for the interrogators. Until 2003, the agency provided its interrogators with rules on a case-by-case basis, sometimes giving permission by e-mail or even orally from CIA headquarters.

Despite the lack of clarity, interrogators were required to sign documents saying they understood the rules and would comply with them. Yet they were given ample room to improvise and make decisions about how much humanity to show to terror detainees.

While former Vice President Dick Cheney said the interrogation program was run by “highly trained professionals who understand their obligations under the law,” the newly released documents suggest otherwise…

And it was all stumbling about in the dark:

The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center began training interrogators in November 2002, two months after suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah already had been repeatedly subjected to waterboarding.

But because the CIA had so little information about al-Qaida, CIA analysts could only speculate about what the detainees “should know,” hobbling the interrogators’ ability to ask meaningful questions and identify misleading or useful answers.

And the methods were not exactly precise:

…the method of waterboarding used by the CIA did not always resemble the clinical, closely supervised process that the Justice Department approved. One official, explaining why interrogators were pouring excessive amounts of water over a detainee’s cloth-covered mouth and nose, said, “It is for real.”

Another interrogator repeatedly choked off the carotid artery of a prisoner, causing the detainee to pass out, then shaking him awake again. The interrogator had only recently been trained in interrogation tactics and had previous experience only in debriefing, the practice of questioning people already willing to cooperate.

Inspired amateurs making it up as they went along built this country, but still…

And as for what was blacked out (redacted) in the report, ABC News found someone willing to explain what was withheld – four prisoners tortured to death, among up to a hundred previous reported, and the near-death of Khalid Sheik Mohammed under these somewhat casual torture techniques.

Are Americans the good guys? Maybe it doesn’t matter because we’re all still alive, as Bill O’Reilly often argues, or maybe it does matter, as Andrew Sullivan argues here:

This is what Bush and Cheney truly achieved in their tragic response to 9/11: two terribly failed, brutally expensive wars, the revival of sectarian warfare and genocide in the Middle East, the end of America’s global moral authority, the empowerment of Iran’s and North Korea’s dictatorships, and the nightmares of Gitmo and Bagram still haunting the new administration.

But what they did to the culture – how they systematically dismantled core American values like the prohibition on torture and respect for the rule of law – is the worst and most enduring of the legacies.

That’s what sickens Sullivan the most:

One political party in this country is now explicitly pro-torture, and wants to restore a torture regime if it regains power. Decent conservatives for the most part simply looked the other way. Unless these cultural forces in defense of violence and torture are defeated – not appeased or excused, but defeated – America will never return the way it once was. Electing a new president was the start and not the end of this. He is flawed, as every president is, but in my view, the scale of the mess he inherited demands some slack. Any new criminal investigation which scapegoats those at the bottom while protecting the guilty men and women who made it happen is a travesty of justice. If it is the end and not the beginning of accountability, it will be worse than nothing.

But it need not be the end of the story. Indeed, it can be the beginning if we make it so. We cannot stop this sad and minuscule attempt to restore a scintilla of accountability to some individuals low down on the totem pole. Eric Holder is doing what he can. But we can continue to lobby and argue for the extension of accountability to the truly guilty men who made all this happen and still refuse to take responsibility for war crimes on a coordinated scale never before seen in American warfare, and initiated by a presidential decision to withdraw from the Geneva Conventions and refuse to abide by their plain meaning and intent.

That may not be easy, as Glenn Greenwald points out:

Manifestly, none of this happened by accident. As the IG Report continuously notes, all of these methods were severe departures from long-standing CIA guidelines (if not practices). This all occurred because the officials at the highest levels of the U.S. Government pronounced that this was permissible, the protections of the Geneva Conventions were “quaint,” obsolete and inapplicable, and the U.S. was justified in doing anything and everything in the name of fighting Terrorists.

Do you want to go after the top dogs and tear the country apart, with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh calling for Civil War? Dahlia Lithwick wonders about that:

It is in a sense admirable that Holder is struggling to keep talking about “the law” in the face of his boss’s policy decision to let sleeping torturers lie and his critics’ insistence that he is singlehandedly making America less safe. To his credit, in Holder’s statement announcing the appointment of a special prosecutor, he didn’t bother to address the question of whether torture “worked,” since that is not, nor has it ever been, a legal question.

All of this is laudable: Holder is committed to protecting the integrity of the legal rules despite huge political pressure to ignore the past and work toward a kinder, gentler future. He declines to be drawn into a sandbox fight about whether the legal rules might matter less because you can prove that violating them has some benefit. But on the other hand, Holder has fallen prey to the sort of magical legal thinking that seeps through the whole CIA report: the presumption that if there’s a legal memo, it must be legal.

That’s the real problem now:

Holder starts from the dangerous notion that the baseline for Durham’s investigation should be the legal rules (spun from bad data and random precedent) set out in the Office of Legal Counsel torture memos. To suggest, as Holder did yesterday, that he would immunize from prosecution “anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees” is to suggest that the low-level CIA operatives and contractors who acted badly on the ground are legally culpable while those who gave bad legal guidance are not. In other words, we are now protecting the good-faith torturers.

She argues that isn’t just wrong, “it’s outrageous.”

It ratifies the most toxic aspect of the whole legal war on terror: that anything becomes permissible if it’s served up with a side of memo. Paper your misconduct with footnotes and justifications – even after the fact – and you can do as you please. Prosecution of those who strayed beyond the new rules, without considering the culpability of those who strayed in creating the new rules, would mean that in America, a law degree amounts to a defense.

Rep Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., put it this way earlier this month when he warned that it makes no sense to prosecute the guy who used 8 ounces of water to water-board but not the lawyer who said it was OK to water-board someone with 3 ounces of water. We must either look into both sides of the post-9/11 legal breakdown or neither. The alternative is the same kind of scapegoating that occurred after Abu Ghraib.

But that is where we are, which is where we shouldn’t be:

That’s why it’s so important that the Justice Department failed again yesterday to release another long-awaited memo from the Office of Professional Responsibility – a memo implicating the actual torture architects – including John Yoo and other Office of Legal Counsel lawyers for violating their professional ethical duties in writing the original torture memos. By disaggregating the conduct of the upper ranks from the conduct of the CIA interrogators, the Justice Department perpetuates the myth that “just following orders” is a legal defense and insults the many, many CIA personnel who resisted the new rules, declining to participate in the chamber of horrors a small clutch of superiors had constructed. Today’s talk of demoralizing the CIA by investigating internal rule-breaking is silly. The IG report makes clear that the CIA was already demoralized by ill-founded claims that the rules were no longer the rules.

And here’s her contention that Cheney would reject:

The American legal system isn’t just about crime and punishment. It’s a set of guideposts to direct us in the future and to send a message about our values to the rest of the world.

This proposed Holder-Durham “regime of semi-accountability” just won’t do. And it won’t really work:

Attorney General Holder is smart enough to know that special prosecutors tend to uncover dirt and that even the limited mandate he has given Durham will almost immediately run into the brick wall that is the torture memos. Virtually any probe into whether a prisoner was water-boarded “properly” will have to tackle the absurd question of why America started water-boarding in the first place. Either Dunham will swallow the Holder line that anything approved by the Office of Legal Counsel’s torture memos was per se legal or his probe will lead him to ask the same questions that will eventually be answered by the OPR report – how did eliciting any information at any cost become the legal answer instead of the legal question?

And see Timothy Noah with Cheney Refuted – these memos he got released along with this report don’t show what he said they’d show. No one knows if the torture worked when nothing else would. They didn’t try anything else. The question is open. And most of the information was crap anyway.

And also at Salon, Juan Cole makes the case for why Congress should step in and set in stone what can and what can’t be done in the interrogation of detainees. It may be time for that:

…one of the interrogators is said to have feared prosecution before the World Court in The Hague. But why weren’t they afraid of prosecution in U.S. courts? When did the U.S. go from having, in the Bill of Rights, among the most advanced human rights laws in the world to being a gulag backwater where it is only a trip to Holland that American torturers fear?…

The Obama administration has forbidden waterboarding. But as long as these things are done by administrative fiat, they can easily be undone. There should be a law.

Well, one day there may be a law. But don’t hold your breath. And note that at the very conservative Power Line, Scott Hinderaker makes the argument that democracy fails when you make such laws and hobble the president.

Andrew Sullivan argues that this is nonsense:

Hinderaker believes that democracy fails when it tries to keep its executive branch from violating the rule of law by authorizing the brutal torture and abuse of thousands of prisoners, many innocent. Let that sink in. It is part of the failure of democracy, in Hinderaker’s view, that it doesn’t empower the government to do anything it wants to do in the name of national security.

To put it bluntly, this is the classic fascist critique of liberal democracy. Fascists have always criticized democratic restraints on executive war-power, even when that war power is specifically designed to include citizens and to apply across the territory of the homeland as well as anywhere on the globe. As for the torture techniques previously used by the Gestapo, the Communist Chinese, the Soviet Gulag, and the Vietnamese, Hinderaker believes these were all “reasonably humane.” What was done to John McCain, in Hinderaker’s view, was humane, and certainly not torture; and what McCain was forced to confess was as reliable as the tortured confessions we now see on Iranian television.

Understanding the current right’s embrace of total state power against the individual takes time to absorb. But liberal democracy has no more dangerous enemies than these.

Maybe so, but then you didn’t want to think about government, did you? But the government is us, and sometime you have to think about it. It’s one of the ways we define ourselves to ourselves. And it seems we’ll have to deal with this too, useless, when asked, you choose to say you’re Danish actually, but thanks for asking. That may be the only alternative you have. Deal with it.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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