The Torture Mentality, Part 2

Last week, I posted a set of pro-torture talking points sent to me by a persistent torture apologist, along with my responses. The talking points were extensive, by not comprehensive. There are plenty more to enumerate, but today I’d like to talk about the one favorite technique and the most frequent recourse of all torture apologists: the resort to theory over reality. The details of the apologies will vary (it wasn’t torture, it saved lives, you would have done it too, it was only in the panicky aftermath of 9/11, it’s kept us safe ever since, etc., etc.), but the one point apologists will always return to is The Ticking Bomb Theory of torture.

Why all this theory? Because the reality is so damning. Apologists hope that if they can get you to focus on a fantasy (“if you had to torture someone to save a city, would you do it?”), you’ll overlook that the Bush administration tortured terror suspects not just in the panicky aftermath of 9/11, but for years afterward, and did so in significant part not to defuse ticking bombs, but rather to establish a nonexistent link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Don’t believe the three reports linked above that Bush and Cheney ordered torture not just to save others’ lives, but to cover their own political asses? There’s more. Yesterday, anonymous “senior intelligence officials” got Walter Pincus of the Washington Post to publish their self-serving claim that although the CIA had indeed questioned Abu Zubaidah and Kalid Sheik Mohammed about an Iraq/AQ connection, such questions were never asked while Zubaidah and KSM were actually being waterboarded. Liz Cheney, currently on tour to defend her father, cited these anonymous claims as proof that the then Vice President didn’t use torture to create a nonexistent cause for war.

(BTW, ask yourself this. What is the Washington Post’s value-add when it types up anonymous government assertions like these? Why doesn’t the CIA just post them on its own website? Answer: if you were to read the same claim on the CIA’s website, you’d immediately discount its value because you would recognize it as self-serving. When instead you read the claim as dutifully transmitted by a stenographer with the Washington Post, it seems more substantive because it’s being presented, in theory, by the disinterested Fourth Estate. The government uses a complicit mainstream media to sanitize its propaganda much as drug dealers use corrupt banks to launder drug money.)

The CIA waterboarded Zubaydah and KSM 83 times and 183 times each. How likely do you think it is that over the course of 266 waterboarding sessions, the CIA never brought up its questions about an Iraq/al Qaeda connection? Who are you going to believe, anonymous intelligence officials and Liz Cheney, or your own lyin’ common sense? And even if you believe the superficially self-serving story of these anonymous intelligence officials, which way does their story cut? Torture is effective at producing false confessions not just because of pain, but because of the *fear* of pain. So someone who’s being waterboarded six times a day for a solid month, as KSM was, will spew out anything he can imagine to get the torture to stop not just while he’s actually being waterboarded, but also in between sessions, when he’s trying to forestall the next trip to the drowning rack.

So don’t go for the head fake: what matters here isn’t the anonymous officials’ claim that Zubaydah and KSM weren’t asked about an Iraq/AQ connection while they were actually being waterboarded. What matters is that the anonymous officials have admitted that Zubaydah and KSM were being asked about an Iraq/AQ connection at all. Anything we got from these two is tainted, whether it was produced during torture sessions or in between them.

(And by the way, there’s another head fake in there: the implication that if Zubaydah and KSM weren’t waterboarded while being asked about Iraq and AQ, they weren’t tortured while being asked. Waterboarding is far from the only torture technique permitted in secret Justice Department memos. So the anonymous officials irrelevant claim that Zubaydah and KSM weren’t simultaneously waterboarded while being asked about Iraq and AQ doesn’t even mean the two weren’t tortured in other ways while being asked).

So get ready for the next talking point in the apologists’ arsenal: “Okay, sure, they were also asked about Iraq and al Qaeda, but since we were torturing them anyway, why not throw in a few other questions, too?”

Torture. It really does take on a life of its own.