Pervasive silence about torture issue
November 5, 2005
OF all the ways in which the American news media have failed since Sept. 11, none may be more consequential than the mild and deferential eye it has cast on the Bush administration's adoption of torture as state policy.
Who can forget the giddy months through the fall of 2001 when U.S. cable networks and newspaper op-ed pages actually staged debates — in some cases in front of live audiences —over how far we should go to "extract information" from any Al Qaeda members who fell into our hands?
Ostensibly responsible Americans — officials and commentators alike — unashamedly sat and publicly discussed not only whether torture was licit, but also how and when it should be applied.
The whole sorry spectacle reached its nadir when a purported civil libertarian, Harvard Law professor Allen Dershowitz, proposed procedures for obtaining "torture warrants." (The relevance of due process to a moral universe that sanctions the torment of other human beings is apparently an irony against which a Harvard professorship armors the mind.)
All of this was abetted by a news media that somehow found it natural to adopt the verbal evasions of our budding Torquemadas. Phrases such as "coercive interrogation" and "harsh measures" began to turn up with regularity. Nobody even bothered to wink.
One of the best is "rendition," which occurs when U.S. forces or intelligence agencies capture suspected terrorists and secretly turn them over to another country — Egypt, Jordan and Morocco apparently are favorites — where people aren't squeamish about a little coercion.
We remain an ingenious people. Who but Americans would think of outsourcing torture?
None of this is surprising. If recent history has taught us anything, it's that the road that brings hell to Earth is paved with euphemism.
This week we passed another milestone on that path, when the Washington Post's Dana Priest reported that "the CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement."
In her front page account, Priest wrote, "The secret facility is part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries....The existence and locations of the facilities — referred to as 'black sites' in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department and congressional documents — are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officials in each host country."
According to the Post's story, "The CIA and the White House ... have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long."
Now, why do we suppose our government wants to hold people secretly in foreign countries? Maybe it's because they want to do things to them that would be illegal inside the United States ... like, say, torture them?
That would explain why Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director Porter J. Goss have so stubbornly resisted language written into the defense spending bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a one-time Vietnam POW, that would prohibit the cruel or inhumane treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody, including those held by the CIA. Cheney and Goss aren't concerned, as their surrogates have argued, about tying the intelligence agencies' hands in some future, theoretical moment of national emergency. They're worried that they'll have to close down the clandestine torture chambers that are in operation now.
And the American press continues to abet their sinister evasions with an indifference to consequence and diffidence to power that only can be called what it is: moral cowardice.
Even the Post, which deserves full credit for exposing the existence of the White House's petite gulag, stepped back from the full disclosure it owed the American people. "The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials," Priest wrote. "They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation."
You can bet those officials argue that — and you can bet just as strongly that acceding to their demands shields the Post from being called unpatriotic, one of the favorite epithets this administration uses to bludgeon the press.
But at least the Post was willing to take the risk of exposing most of this story. What should have been a torrent of follow-up reporting and commentary by other news organizations was barely a trickle by week's end.
In fact, when a Washington-based human rights organization came forward to say it believes the CIA's secret prisons are in Poland and Romania, the only newspaper willing to print the allegations was Britain's Financial Times.
The grotesqueries presented by this sordid story are almost too numerous to list. But one likely to be overlooked deserves to be noted.
There is something particularly perverse about the United States inducing the fledgling democracies of Eastern Europe to become its accomplices in all this.
For decades, the iron curtain, captive nations and Soviet tyranny were staples of American political rhetoric — and of the U.S. news media's editorial pages. Seas of reportorial ink were spilled charting the murky reaches of the Gulag and the interlocking network of secret police agencies that maintained the cold grip of an ossified communism throughout the Eastern Bloc year after gray, numbing year.
To make these points in this connection is not to mock. We were right, and the Soviet Union and its client governments were wrong.
Now, we have to wonder whether the Bush administration fixed on Poland and Romania — or some other Eastern European democracy — precisely because it suspected that the long night of Soviet oppression had conditioned them to accept our "black sites" on their soil?
Or did we think that societies desperate for a slice of the West's prosperity wouldn't mind selling just one more little piece of their collective souls to obtain Washington recommendation to the European Union?
There was a time when American officials could stand up in public and — without blushing — describe the United States as "the leader of the free world."
Could any of them do that now that this administration has adopted torture as an instrument of state policy?
Sadly, the answer probably is yes. They lost the ability to blush when shame became a casualty of the war on terror.
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