Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The banality of evil


        In my debate with Republican State Senator Shawn Mitchell over whether Condi Rice committed war crimes for commanding torture – see the video here – Shawn made two contradictory arguments.  The first was that we were debating about the wrong person.  It is not Condi you want, he suggested, but Bush and Cheney.  The second is that it is “comforting” to have had Principals’ meetings in the basement of the White House – all the main officials except Bush – which discussed just how many times Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was to be waterboarded, how many hours strung up from the ceiling, how many days kept sleepless, and the like (When Obama later released the torture memos in response to an ACLU law suit, it turned out that KSM had been waterboarded 183 times in a month – to try to elicit the lie that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al-Qaida).  It is really important, Shawn said, that the torture be meted out with care.  At the end of one late meeting according to the ABC news report, Condi, suppressing I suspect a pang of conscience, urged Tenet: “Go for it.” 

       In response to the release of the CIA inspector-general’s torture report in 2004, long suppressed by Vice-President Cheney  (see here and here), Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti wrote the main column in today’s New York Times (p. A1, right) on “Records Show Strict Rules for C.I.A. Interrogations: Details of Harsh Treatment were Overseen by Managers, Lawyers and Doctors.”  The authors are comforted:” “Managers, Lawyers and Doctors” and they could have added psychologists like Mitchell and Jesson.  The revolt in the American Psychological Association against a leadership which furthered this parallels the revolt in the FBI – Ali Soufan, see here – and the CIA against these policies.  But Shane and Mazzetti have smooth words:

       “the first news reports this week about hundreds of pages of newly released documents on the C.I.A. program focused on aberrations in the field: threats of execution by handgun or assault by power drill; a prisoner lifted off the ground by his arms, which were tied behind his back; another detainee repeatedly knocked out with pressure applied to the carotid artery.”

The hundred who died in American custody by Pentagon statistics are just -  “aberrations.”  Good to know that our jail keepers are professionals.  “But” they continue,

       “the strong impression that emerges from the documents, many with long passages blacked out for secrecy, is by no means one of gung-ho operatives running wild.  It is a portrait of overwhelming control exercised from C.I.A. headquarters and the Department of Justice – control Bush administration officials say was intended to insure that the program was safe and legal.”

      Note that this apology makes a farce of Attorney General Holder’s appointment of an independent prosecutor who will only investigate the original crimes by particular CIA officers (they had been ordered by Cheney in his move to the “dark side,” but Holder looks away).  The reporters note this contradiction.  In addition, the Justice Department memos were mere apologies crafted by Yoo and Bybee in response to  C.I.A. or Cheney requests, shifting the line to encompass more and more torture.  These were no legal documents.  But the form of the torture – every detail was calculated, doctors were present – Shane and Mazetti tell us earnestly – it was not, it could not be…torture.  The Bush officials, however, make it clear that every iota of torture was supervised from the top.  Torture was not aberrant.  It was Bush policy.

     “Managers, doctors and lawyers not only set the program’s parameters but dictated every facet of a detainee’s daily routine, monitoring interrogations on an hour-by-hour basis.  From their Washington offices, they obsessed over the smallest details: the number of calories a prisoner consumed daily (1,500); the number of hours he cold be kept in a box (eight hours for the large box, two hours for the small one); the proper time when his enforced nudity should be ended and his clothes returned.”

       “The detainee ‘finds himself in the complete control of Americans; the procedures he is subjected to are precise, quiet, and almost clinical,’ noted one document.”

       In the lengthy continuation on p. A10, the reporters treat waterboarding in this context, succeeding in getting a true description, with a conditional (only American torture is not torture, in the New York Times’ usage) by the editors: 

       “Waterboarding might (??!!!) be an excruciating procedure with deep roots in the history of torture, but for the CIA’s Office of Medical Services, record-keeping for each session of near-drowning was critical. ‘In order to best inform future medical judgments and recommendations, it is important that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented,’ said medical guidelines prepared for the interrogators in December, 2004.”

      “The required records, the medical supervisors said, included ‘how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.”

     Waterboarding is torture, said Eric Holder and Barack Obama.*  Those who read mystery novels may be familiar with the obsessions of certain murderers.  Perhaps, the murderers are technically psychotics…Every detail must be in place, calculated, ritualized…Yes, the tortures have a bureaucratic character.  But does the bureaucratic accounting of Cheney’s obsessions hide either their criminality or their madness?

       Shane and Mazzetti cite Tom Parker of Amnesty International who says aptly that the documents are “chilling.’  But even he is quoted only within the framework of the Times’s editorial censorhip; “‘They show how deeply rooted this new culture of mistreatment became,’ he said.”   The correct word is torture and it is against the law.  It is an assault on the idea of law itself.

       In her recent collection Something to Exchange (see here), Celia Gilbert has written a powerful poem. "July 20, 1944"  on the Nazi removal and categorization of all the goods of Jews, the sanitation of quantities of clothes to be provided to German citizens…The Nazis were meticulous bureaucrats of genocide, the Bush-Cheney administration of torture.  As Hannah Arendt once said, this is the banality of evil. 

*The Times’ editorial page has an apt assessment of “The Torture Papers’ (the split between Times’ editorials on the issue and its so-called reporting is as schizophrenic as the Wall Street Journal‘s though in the latter, it is the reporting which is often sane).  What the Times says here is admirable and important.   It concludes:

        “The report offers one more compelling reason for a far broader inquiry into Mr. Bush’s lawless behavior.  It is possible to sympathize with Mr. Obama’s desire to avoid a politically fraught investigation.  But the need to set this nation back under the rule of law is no less urgent than it was when he promised to do so in his campaign.”

        “That will not be accomplished by investigating individual interrogators. It will require a fearless airing of how the orders were issued to those men, and who gave them.  Only by making public officials accountable under the law can Americans be confident that future presidents will not feel free to break it the way Mr. Bush did.” (p. A20)

1 comment:

Amentahru said...

Check out rightwing radio host Mancow get waterboarded (after talking about how it was not torture). Afterwards he completely cahnges his tune (surprise).

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