Last week I went through the report on torture carried out by the CIA, looking at exactly what they did to detainees and how they lied about it. This week – who will be held accountable? And what does the torture and reactions to it say about the US after 9/11?
The unfortunate answer to the first question is that most likely nobody will be held accountable – there is simply no political will. Most politicians, including the President, see this as a sad chapter now to be closed. But is that how it works when you commit a crime? It is incredibly clear that numerous people should be prosecuted. Dr. James Mitchell for example, known in the report as SWIGERT, was one of two men who devised the torture program described by the report as violating US law. He was also the man who personally poured water down a detainee’s throat whenever he tried to speak (p. 88). John Yoo is another one, the attorney who twisted the Geneva convention beyond recognition to claim that it wasn’t technically torture to cram someone into an insect filled box. However, despite the fact that everyone agrees the law was broken, no one will be prosecuted. The prevailing rhetoric among politicians at the moment is that these were people with good intentions who went too far. Try that defence in court someday.
Another thing defenders of the CIA have constantly reminded people of over the last week is the atmosphere in the US after 9/11. People were afraid, especially those within the CIA who had been blamed for letting the attacks happen, and there was immense pressure from the White House to stop further attacks. While this fear helps explain the torture, the US has been afraid before. What is really different about this time is the way 9/11 was turned into a completely unique historical event. The whole world could watch the bodies falling from the towers, and witness America’s apparent helplessness in a way that had never happened before. The attacks were therefore treated as a unique atrocity , and anything was justified in finding those who carried it out. This is an attitude that is still around today, with people constantly returning to the horror of September 11 to justify the torture program.
What this view of 9/11 means is that the attackers cannot be human, and therefore don’t deserve to be treated that way. There is a tendency among defenders of the CIA to trivialise the details of the torture, or even make light of them. That misses the awful truth. A government which professes to defend human rights systematically degraded the dignity of a fellow human being through torture, turning a functioning man into a creature which got up and laid down on the waterboard when he heard the click of fingers. When faced with crisis, the United States government abandoned the very values it defended so vehemently in public.
By saying that the torture was justified, the critics forget everything America has ever told itself. To American politicians it is the exceptional nation and an example to the rest of the world. They literally believe that it is the best and most free place anyone could live. But taking up the banner of freedom and human rights means living up to those ideals. When the US tortures its enemies, all the fine words about exceptionalism immediately ring hollow. There is nothing al-Qaeda could have done to hurt America’s position in the world more than what America did itself. Releasing this report is a first step – but only by holding government officials responsible for their actions can the United States begin to live up to the values it holds so dear.