The True Price of the “Dark Side”

In the course of researching my next novel, I just binged on three excellent documentaries: Standard Operating Procedure, which examines the events at Abu Ghraib through photos, video, and interviews with many of the soldiers convicted of torturing prisoners there; Best Documentary Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which examines America’s move to what Vice President Cheney called “the dark side” through the imprisonment, torture, and murder at Bagram Airbase of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver; and Torturing Democracy, which examines the Bush administration’s embrace of “alternative interrogation techniques” and the effect of that embrace on our democracy (available on the TD website either by DVD or as a free download).

Several things came to mind while I watched these documentaries.

First, what will be the continuing impact of these photos and videos–of Arab men being shackled, beaten, set upon by dogs, stripped, forced to masturbate, forced to mime homosexual acts–on jihadist recruitment? I’m not talking only about how many new suicide bombers these photos and videos will create; I’m talking also about the size and depth of the pool of sympathizers without whose support or at least acquiescence the bombers would be unable to function effectively. Whatever good might be accomplished by our overall efforts at counterterror, it’s hard to imagine it’ll outweigh the effect of what came out of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere.

Second, I was struck by how, in almost every photo and video of abuse, humiliation, and torture, the prisoners were hooded. It’s well understood that covering a person’s face is a highly effective way of denying his humanity (prisoners ascending the gallows or facing death by firing squad are hooded not as a mercy to the condemned, but as enablement to the executioner). Whatever “softening up” or security benefits the government believes might be accrued through hooding, the costs of the practice, in terms of increasing the likelihood of prisoner abuse, must be far greater.

Third, a thought experiment. If instead of American soldiers and Arab detainees, the photos and videos from Abu Ghraib were of American POWs and, say, Iranian guards, what would be the American reaction? Note the linguistic choices in the previous sentence, which would be automatic: Arabs are denied the dignity of being designated Prisoners of War. They’re not even prisoners. They’re merely “detainees” (I’m half-surprised we haven’t started calling them “guests”). The Americans holding them are “soldiers”; were the shoe on the other foot, the enemy captors would doubtless receive the less exalted term, “guards.” Would there be any debate about whether the practices revealed in the photos were “outrages upon human dignity,” as prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and US law? Would we describe the practices as “abuse?” Or would they obviously, and rightly, be called “torture?” If Americans were taken against their will and spirited away by Iranian government forces, would we call the practice “rendering,” or would we recognize it as “kidnapping?” Would we call the places to which Americans were secreted and where they were held without acknowledgment to their families or even to the Red Cross “detention centers?” Or would we call such a system a gulag?

Fourth, I marveled at the logical fallacy at the heart of our decision to “take the gloves off” and employ practices pioneered by the Spanish Inquisition (where waterboarding was known as the “tortura del agua,” and sleep deprivation as the “tormentum insomnia”), and followed by the KGB, Communist Chinese, and North Koreans. All these illustrious forebears of ours employed the practices in question to elicit false *confessions,* yet we decided to employ them to elicit accurate *intelligence.* These are completely different goals, and I’m amazed that advocates of an embrace of such techniques could miss a point so fundamental. Call it your tax dollars at work.

It’s common for rightists to justify America’s embrace of the “dark side” by claiming that President Bush has kept the country safe. The claim strikes me as remarkably simplistic. If the temporal frame of reference begins on 9/11, and we ignore the unsolved anthrax attacks that came shortly after, and the geographical frame of reference is the territorial United States alone, then one might accurately claim America has been safe *up until now.* Whether the correlation between “the dark side” and our safety up until this point has a causal connection is far more debatable. Regardless, to me, “has kept us safe up until this point” has far too much the ring of Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time.” It also makes me think of a parent who seems to be an excellent provider because he’s financing all those provisions on a dozen maxed-out credit cards. The temporary comfort he’s afforded his family will inevitably be wiped out by the unpayable bill they’re all soon to receive. Watching these documentaries, you can’t help but feel that bill is out there, and that soon enough, it will be horrifically presented to us. Even if you believe “the dark side” offers benefits, and you’re willing to ignore what the dark side has cost us in terms of our own ideals and our image in the world, that bill, when it comes, will represent the dark side’s true price.