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News item: CIA Director John Brennan says he won’t waterboard even if the president orders it.

You look for good news where you can find it, but read down a bit in the article above to see Brennan’s reason for disallowing waterboarding: not because it is wrong, but because it harms the CIA. This is the same John Brennan who tried to obstruct Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, then offered a muted defense of CIA conduct after the report came out. He shows some integrity as a cabinet member to say waterboarding harms his agency, and to set an example of resistance. Moreover, no one can complain if someone stands up to Trump’s hare brained proclamations about how to defeat ISIS, but honestly, does anyone in government have courage to say that torture is wrong, and that’s why we shouldn’t do it?


CIA Director John Brennan

No, the entire debate about torture involves 1) what counts as torture, and 2) whether it works or not. So we have extended efforts to define things that are obviously torture as not torture, which we then call enhanced interrogation. Then we have extended efforts, like Zero Dark Thirty, to show enhanced interrogation works. This paradigm for analyzing torture is so well established that one has a lot of difficulty getting outside of it. Thus we have Trump: “If we’re allowed to get tough, we’ll defeat ISIS so fast it will make your head spin.”

Well I’ll tell you, if you listen to Donald Trump for more than ten seconds, it will turn your head to mush. He interrupts your ability to think clearly, so effectively, you might as well take a shot of mescaline. Let’s return to the paradigm, though. If you spend all your energy on definitions and arguments about whether one technique or another works, you have entered a moral world where the distinction between right and wrong no longer exists. Torture is the ultimate expression of might makes right. ISIS should have taught us that much, if the catastrophe in Iraq and Syria has not taught us anything else.

Some things are wrong, but are not crimes. Other acts are wrong, and they are petty crimes. Torture may be at the top of the list in the hierarchy of crimes. Unlike murder, you keep your victim alive for as long as you want. You control how long the person under your control suffers before you kill him, confine him, or decide to set him free. By John Yoo’s reasoning, the harm you inflict on your prisoner is bounded only by the standard of organ failure. In that way, waterboarding is the ideal technique. It offers the ultimate in suffering and control, but no evidence of traditional torture. Yoo would say the person who invented waterboarding belongs in the interrogation hall of fame.

You may say, along with George W. Bush, that the United States does not torture its prisoners because Americans are not criminals. How’s that for a good illustration of reasoning backward? You start with your premise, that America commits no crimes, then claim that everything we do, including waterboarding, is innocent. With that, you have a clear conscience.

Ah, but we’ve already done it – the waterboarding and other torture techniques – and no amount of backward reasoning will save you. We are criminals: not individually, but as a nation. Yet if that’s the case, what’s the point of trying to reform? President Obama goes abroad to make amends, and people mock him for his apology tour. After you have tasted power over your detainees – people who deserve revenge, from the torturer’s point of view – why would you give up the elixir voluntarily? Revenge is sweet, the interrogators say, the more suffering the better.

I have heard not one leader, not one, lay out the moral case against torture. About the most we have had is Obama’s, “Yeah, we don’t want to do that anymore.” Brennan adds, “We did it before, but we won’t do it again.” You looked for John McCain in 2008, or John Kerry in 2004, to condemn these practices, to explain why they are crimes, but they did not. Neither concealed their distaste for the way CIA treated its prisoners, but distaste does not count as leadership. If they had made condemnation of torture a central theme of their campaigns, their defeats might have meant something. We might also not have had the same tired discussions about torture when Zero Dark Thirty appeared.

When people cheer Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in this election year as they lay out their plans for war on ISIS, you hear the chant in the background, “USA, USA, USA, USA!!!” Underneath the chant lies the sentiment, “We’ll do whatever the fuck we want, you peons!” When Bush and Cheney, Cruz and Trump or any other advocate for criminal practices suggests our safety and security depends on our willingness to be tough on our enemies, ignore these contemptible people. Gruesomely, some reporters and Senate investigators insist they be specific about what they mean by toughness. If forcing the contents of a tube into a prisoner’s rectum, or pouring water into a prisoner’s bronchial tubes count as toughness, at least we know exactly what these mean spirited, weak and clueless leaders mean to endorse.

Yet for the most part only weary citizens, still wearing the state’s yoke, object that criminals do not deserve power. Criminals certainly do poorly as leaders. In fact, when you let criminals shape how you behave in the world, you wind up far less safe than if you placed responsibility with people of integrity. When you hear people speak the language of fear, intimidation and revenge, turn away. When you hear people like John Brennan speak of bureaucratic self-protection, reply, “Thank you for sharing, but we’ve heard that kind of talk before. Perhaps come to us again when you grasp the harm you and your colleagues have done to your country.”

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CIA director: We won’t waterboard