Torture Wars

Published in The Express Tribune

In his book on (unironic) leadership lessons, Donald Rumsfeld sagely whispers, ‘What’s surprising is that we continue to be surprised.’

The patron saint of 21st century torture, Rumsfeld has a reputation for ugly acts and ugly tongue-twisters. But in the same way a broken clock is right twice a day, Don Rumsfeld may be right too.

Five years and six million CIA documents later, the US Senate has made its findings public. A mere ‘executive summary’ — the actual document is 6,700 pages long — has made its readers physically sick. What’s surprising is we continue to be surprised.

Because the hints were already there; the sounds of screams in the distance, well before the report: pyramids of live bodies at Abu Ghraib. Coroners at Bagram describing trauma to dead prisoners’ legs as comparable to ‘being run over by a bus.’ Logbooks from Guantanamo telling us a suspect was blasted with Christina Aguilera music, given enemas, and made to act like a dog.

That was the score to these terror wars; the sights and sounds we grew up with. Of ‘extraordinary renditions’, of General Musharraf telling us about the bounty money. It was all on record.

Then the Senate report happened.

It so turns out, what we feared was true. And what we couldn’t even begin to imagine fearing — that was true too. The Senate torture report reads like a de Sade novel, but the free world’s descent into the torture chamber isn’t fiction. It is documented reality.

It’s the backgrounder to ‘enhanced interrogation,’ a phrase Justice Department lawyers dressed up torture with, while stripping their victims of the Geneva Conventions in simultaneity. And as with most things intelligence, everyone was lying.

Detainees (‘enemy combatants’ according to the Justice Department,and ‘terrorists’ according to Dick Cheney) were slammed into walls. They were made to stand on broken feet. They were ‘rehydrated,’ a practice that involved injecting food paste into their rectums. Officers threatened to rape and kill their mothers. Some were waterboarded, ‘sensory deprived,’ and made to wear diapers and wet themselves.

Many were innocent. Many begged their torturers to kill them, and sometimes they did: Afghanistan’s Rahman Gul was stripped of his pants and shackled to a wall, in a secret prison called the Salt Pit. He was found frozen to death the next morning. No one was charged.

Which is the next horror we come to grips with: if the pattern holds, no one’s getting charged anytime soon. Investigations into over 100 cases of severe abuse — including Rahman Gul’s — have been closed, kudos the same Obama Administration that opened them in the first place in 2009. However, the Bush days beckon us, Mr. Obama prayed ‘we look forward’ instead.

The president is following an executive trend burned into Washington since Watergate: investigate not your predecessor, lest ye be investigated into. That may be the one enduring legacy of the all-pardoning Ford presidency — that, and the early days of Messrs Rumsfeld and Cheney.

Not that 40 years have made a difference: Cheney’s emerged from his throne in hell, calling the report ‘a bunch of crap.’ Ever the folksy old zombie, Rumsfeld guffaws away his torture permissions, ‘Good grief, that’s a pile of stuff!’ And George W. stays holed up in Crawford, Texas, allowing the press to fill in the blanks.

And what a press it is. While the Republicans wash blood off their hands, America’s right=wing commentariat is bouncing back. Over at Fox News, anchor Andrea Tantaros won the network’s weekly lunatic award, ‘The Bush administration did what the American public wanted, and that was do whatever it takes to keep us safe.’

Known for her brand of eyeball-melting inanity, Ms. Tantaros continued, ‘The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome. We’ve closed the book on (torture), and we’ve stopped doing it. And the reason they want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.’

Not-awesome are America’s powers of introspection. But while the debate over depravity widens to the moral and the legal, the good and the evil, security vs. liberty, here’s the core truth: torture doesn’t work.

The interrogation programme was the brainchild of two psychologists with zero experience of interrogation: James Mitchell and Bruce Jenssen reversed the same resistance techniques taught to American service personnel in case of capture, by communists during the Korean War.

But ‘50s commie regimes require false confessions — for propaganda purposes. How and why the Bush boys thought ‘actionable intelligence’ could be gleaned from the kind of tactics that make only for terrified lies, is beyond our understanding. The report attests as much: the effectiveness of the torture programme was nil; the best intelligence almost always gathered via other means.

And in a recent study by Charles Sturt University’s Jane Goodman-Delahunty, it was noted that ‘disclosure was 14 times more likely to occur early in an interrogation when a rapport-building approach was used’ while ‘confessions were four times more likely when interrogators struck a neutral and respectful stance.’

Which is what these torture wars may yet teach us: beyond torture as a moral nightmare, it’s bad strategy besides.

High time then that Pakistan, the ‘frontline state’ in the wider war, learnt that lesson. The U.S. makes empty howls in lieu of criminal convictions; Pakistan affords its victims neither. Torture at the official level is both acceptable and prevalent. And while Article 14 of the Constitution does much to prohibit torture, Pakistan’s penal code lacks both adequate definition and criminalisation.

That may change with the proposed Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Act. Moved by Maiza Hameed in the Assembly and Farhatullah Babar in the Senate (Mr. Babar’s legislative priorities are growing increasingly impressive), the bill goes a long way towards plugging the gaps in Pakistan’s legal regimen. Torture becomes an extraditable offence, evidence so gleaned is inadmissible, and protections for victims are put in place.

But the Muslim League’s legislative record — ranging from zero to Pakistan Protection Act back to zero again — leaves much to be desired. Best to dump the Cheney-era detention laws, and focus on convicting those arrested instead.

The psychologist Carl Jung once wrote, ‘The healthy man does not torture others — generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.’ For a generation defined by the diseased heart of Dick Cheney, it is wisdom learned the hard way.