American Torture: No Knowledge of History, No Sense of Tragedy

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Mr. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. A TomDispatch.com regular, his articles have appeared in The Nation, Asia Times, Salon.com, Le Monde diplomatique, and elsewhere.

Recently in the New York Times, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti showed that the Bush Administration, the CIA, and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees failed to ask for any historical context before approving so-called “harsh interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, in 2002.  No one apparently knew, or wanted to know, that the U.S. had defined waterboarding as torture and prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II.  Did our leaders think the events of 9-11 constituted an entirely new reality, one in which historical precedent was rendered nugatory?

Perhaps so, but their failure to ask historically-based questions also highlights the narrowness of their intellectual training.  Like the accused Nazi judges before the bar in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), they asked themselves only what the law is (or what it became under John Ashcroft and John Yoo), not whether it is just.  If a legal brief authorized brutal methods such as waterboarding, who were they to question, let alone challenge, the (freshly minted) legal opinion? 

Clearly, the leaders making and implementing decisions on torture constituted a single, self-referencing, self-identified Washington elite almost entirely divorced from thinking historically, let alone tragically.  And because they could think neither historically nor tragically, they found false comfort in picturing themselves as stalwart defenders of the nation, not recognizing the mesmerizing power of vengeance and hate.

Our elected officials who find history books too onerous would do well to invest three hours of their time to watch Judgment at Nuremberg.  They might learn that a compromised judiciary will uphold any action -- discriminatory race laws, involuntary sterilization, even mass murder -- all in the name of defending the people from supposedly apocalyptic threats.

Indeed, defending the country from apocalyptic threats is a popular line for those wishing to uphold the Bush Administration’s policy on torture.  After the tragedy of 9/11, and subsequent panic in the wake of Anthrax attacks, our leaders were compelled to “take the gloves off” in our defense, even compelled to exact vengeance as a way of deterring future attacks -- or so these torture apologists claim. 

In their haste to make America safe, Bush and Company effectively declared vengeance was theirs and not the Lord’s.  But the human lust for vengeance is blinding, even more so when it’s perceived as righteous.  Here our wrathful lawyers/politicians might consider the lessons of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto.  The hunchbacked court jester, Rigoletto, delights in other people’s misfortune, and for this he is cursed by a cuckolded husband.  Soon, his own daughter, Gilda, the joy of his life, is kidnapped and despoiled, the first bitter fruits of the curse.  Despite Gilda’s pleas to forgive the transgressor, Rigoletto, blinded by his own murderous desire for vengeance, sets in motion a chain of events that ends with the sacrificial death of his beloved Gilda and the annihilation of any vestige of goodness in his tortured soul.

In Rigoletto, the desire for total vengeance produces total tragedy.  In Judgment at Nuremberg, man’s ability to justify the worst crimes in the name of “safeguarding the people” is memorably exposed and justly condemned.

What we need today in Washington are fewer leaders who base their decisions on vengeance empowered by legal briefs and more who are willing to embrace the toughest lessons to be gleaned from history and tragedy.  What we need today as well is our own version of Judgment at Nuremberg-- our own special prosecutorial court -- one that is unafraid to elevate justice, truth, and the value of a single human being above all other concerns -- especially political ones.


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    More Comments:

    James Lee Winningham - 5/12/2009

    Your argument is a tired one. Just because our troops are tortured as POW's that means we are free to do whatever we want? Do we not hold ourselves to a higher standard? When we start lowering to their levels then we have lost the battle. Also, it's not like torture works. This is not the set of 24. Every study shows very little benefit from torture methods.

    Jules R. Benjamin - 5/12/2009

    Mr. Clayson assumes that our enemies would destroy us. It follows that we must not shrink from destroying them. Since 1945 we have had the nuclear weapons to have utterly destroyed the Soviet Union, the sattelite states, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, the Afghan-Pakistan border region, etc. Had we done so we would now be safe. It is amazing what a little starch can do!

    Mark Reitz - 5/12/2009

    I say indict them all, starting with those in Congress (including Pelosi) who knew what was going on, could have taken steps to correct it, but never did.

    Julian Mc Beth - 5/12/2009

    A great article. It continues to amaze me how hubris and ignorance conspired in the previous administration to demand torture. If it were not so tragic, one would be tempted to call it cliched. I am reminded of the apocryphal story of a reporter demanding from a Bush official how they can continue to make a certain claim when no evidence supports it, only to be answered "we make our own reality".

    To think that such things were done here, in a federation established to be a haven against such outrages to human dignity, can only fill one with a deep shame.

    Vernon Clayson - 5/12/2009

    It appears that Col. Astore, USAF Ret. sees the world differently from the academic world than one would think he did while a military man. What took the starch from him? It seems reasonable that he served with men from past wars, WWII and Korean veterans also served in Vietnam and Vietnam veterans served in the Gulf War and Gulf War veterans now serve in OIF, has he no idea of the cruelty and privations our men endured in those conflicts? Can he really believe that anything they endured was as mild as the procedures used in interrogation now? Our being nicer than necessary because we are so civilized will get us nowhere. Our Muslim enemies hate us all equally, including the tender hearted Colonel.

    John Nicholas - 5/11/2009

    You wrote: "No one apparently knew, or wanted to know, that the U.S. had defined waterboarding as torture and prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Did our leaders think the events of 9-11 constituted an entirely new reality, one in which historical precedent was rendered nugatory?"

    Can you provide a citation for the statute(s)?