Public Comment

Two Torture Tentacles

By Marvin Chachere
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:08:00 AM

In 2004 a senior advisor in the Bush White House made this incredible remark to Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” (New York Times, “Without Doubt,” Oct. 17), thereby updating Nixon’s famous remark to David Frost, “When the President does it that means it is not illegal” (1977). 

Following 9/11, the Bush administration did a lot that was illegal and engaged frequently in distortions of reality. At first by declaring war on terror, it invented a new kind of war, created from a practice of violence as old as history. Bush decided that the new enemy did not have the same rights as ordinary soldiers; they were terrorists, without uniforms and without a nation. He deemed them enemy combatants and thus he created a new kind of foe to match his new kind of war. 

Terror being a barbarous practice, Bush’s declaration of war, with Congress’s spineless and mindless approbation, meant forever war, because whereas ordinary wars end—one side defeats the other or surrenders to it—no one could ever be sure that a particular act of terror would be the last.  

Aided by the dominant media and acting preemptively the Bush White House hoisted fear-colored signals that resonated in a nationwide chant: Strike them on their own soil before they strike us on ours!  

Accordingly, along with common sense, justice and the rule of law were jettisoned. Our collective moral judgment was blurred; fiction replaced fact, lies passed as truth. And today with a new White House team the time of reckoning has arrived.  

A demand is mounting that crimes of the Bush administration be thoroughly and openly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. Foremost among those crimes is the torture of prisoners. 

Precisely as Alexis de Tocqueville observed almost two hundred years ago, the way we treat prisoners speaks volumes about our kind of government. A lot has changed since 1834 but the even-handed application of due process in dealing with crimes survives as a measure of national virtue.  

It is a disheartening fact that in our bipartisan style of governing not a single proposal for change goes unchallenged; whatever one party wants the other opposes.  

A relatively small but powerful group of current and former leaders in and out of government is resisting the demand for accountability. President Obama seems to agree, saying he wants to focus his energy on current and future problems—the ailing economy, universal medical care, environmental cleanup, immigration reform, foreign relations, etc.—rather than on the past.  

But the president is sworn to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution which implies executing laws. To deliberately turn away from tracking down wrongdoers is itself a crime that is more grievous in my view than the one Obama seems reluctant to pursue.  

What concerns me more, however, is the attempt to stall prosecutorial action by equating the tentacles sprouting from torture with blood-curdling torture itself, using the shadow to distract attention from the substance. I have in mind a pair of news stories, one originating with the party in power and the other with the party just ousted, stories that at the very least divert attention from dealing with past crimes, especially dehumanizing acts of inflicting life-threatening torment on prisoners.  

Justice is an ideal, a goal that laws are designed to pursue. And justice for us evolves from the philosophers of ancient Greece who generally conceived it as balance: crime disturbs social order, punishment restores it; wrongdoing is corrected by reparation. Sins must be atoned for. The prevailing image of justice is a blind-folded woman holding aloft for all to see a balance scale on which one tray is weighted with crime and the other with its corresponding punishment. Punishment must fit the crime.  

It follows from this that when crimes go unpunished a toxic rot begins to infect society, civic order is threatened, social harmony dis-chorded. 

Justice is mocked by euphemizing. Authorities may qualify techniques of tortures used in interrogating prisoners as “enhanced” but torture resides in a place outside the meaning of enhancement. How does one enhance a crime like say theft, murder, rape? If CIA interrogators actually sought to enhance their work they might, for example, put their prisoner on a pedestal, make him wear silk pajamas, entertain him with a song, and enquire about his family—to enhance usually means to improve in some way.  

But I digress. Let’s get back to my subject: the two tentacles of torture. 

In recent weeks the dominant media carried unflattering news and comments about Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Her Republican colleagues reportedly said she could and ought to have opposed enhanced interrogation techniques in 2002 when, as Ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence, the CIA briefed her about them. Her stuttering retorts finally settled on accusing the CIA of deceit.  

This hubbub is politically volatile, of course, but in relation to the crime of torturing prisoners it is a distraction, a fringe issue, a shadow, a tentacle of a heinous crime. Pelosi may be guilty of a dereliction of duty, laziness even, but not of a crime. 

Meanwhile, the formerly silent former VP, Dick Cheney, mouths off on the small screen to selected audiences about the necessity of torture and swears to its efficacy. In so declaiming he represents another tentacle of torture. 

According to Dick, the techniques used by interrogators were not at all torture because they were used on our own soldiers to train them for certain dangerous situations. We are left to conclude that if we do these things to our own men in uniform, then it is not illegal and therefore not torture (shades of Nixon). Cheney was referring to SERE training. SERE stands for survival, evasion resistance and escape.  

What Dick does not say is that techniques incorporated in SERE’s training were assembled and improved upon from methods used in the Soviet Union under Stalin and in China under the Kuomintang. These brutal practices were not used to extract information but to discipline, to punish and to intimidate. Everyone except Cheney knows that severe pain will induce anyone to say anything.  

It surpasses any normal sense of shame that a former VP would not only condone but enthusiastically embrace practices reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition. One could understand why an extremist might consider Dick Cheney to be a modern-day disciple of the infamous 15th century Dominican cleric Tomas de Torquemada  

Both Dick on the right and Nancy on the left, spurred on by the dominant media, represent strangely matching tentacles of torture. 

It is possible that constantly attending to them—Mars and Venus—will succeed in diverting us from the job we must do, namely investigate and punish. If that happens we will find our cherished commitment to justice further and perhaps irreparably degraded. 


Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.