January 20, 2007

At the Bottom of the Abyss: 24 as the Basis of National Policy

In "Lies in the Service of Evil," I summarized the major rationalizations offered for the sanctioned use of torture, and showed why none of them can withstand even cursory examination. In addition to dissecting the favored and entirely false argument of last resort for torture's advocates, the notorious "ticking bomb" scenario, I offered some observations about torture more generally.

In part, I wrote:
With regard to the primary justification, we know that torture does not lead to useful or accurate intelligence, and that other, humane methods of interrogation are infinitely more reliable. If one's goal, in fact, is the acquisition of information that will lead to the saving of innocent lives, torture is without question not the way to obtain it. That fact alone leads to only one conclusion: the motives that in fact lead to people to endorse even the very "limited" use of torture are not ones they care to identify or have known. In some form, they are aware of the deformity of their own souls, and they endlessly seek to hide it from themselves -- and from others.


It is immensely difficult to keep the full scope of the monstrousness, inhumanity and evil represented by torture in mind. Yet we must struggle to do precisely this, and we must do so all the time when discussing this subject. It is not acceptable, it is not civilized, and it is not decent to analyze whether and in what fashion one should inflict agonizing pain on another human being for its own sake in the manner of desiccated bureaucrats, utterly devoid of feeling and compassion.


Torture does not work. Its use permanently damages all those who are tortured, and those who administer the violence. Its "lawful" use profoundly undermines the broader society and democratic institutions in ways that are irreparable. But its persistent, ineradicable failure is entirely irrelevant for those who seek to consolidate and expand state power. Moreover, its inherent failure underscores their aim: it does not work, everyone knows it does not work, but the state does it because it can.

In this view, power is all, and power is its own justification. It is a simple truth, and a terrible one.
See the earlier entry for many more details.

In my lengthy series On Torture, I set forth in Part III how the Bush Administration has made the systematic, comprehensive use of torture a regular part of the methods it employs in the so-called, self-perpetuating, eternal and never-defined "War on Terror." The administration and its mindlessly robotic defenders can proclaim as many times as they like that "we do not torture." We all know, and the entire world knows, that we do. As a nation, we have crossed a divide in a manner from which we may never recover. It is, quite simply, the divide that separates civilization from the most primitive kind of barbarism.

Several days ago, the Washington Post published an article that confirms everything I have argued -- and much worse. The article also confirms another point that I and many others have made: that the mainstream media is the dutiful handmaiden of governmental power, and of those who wield it. As I mentioned as the third point in "Trapped in the Wrong Paradigm": "The press will always transmit and amplify government propaganda, and this is especially true with regard to war propaganda."

Note that you will not find the word "torture" anywhere in the Washington Post article. It refers to "controversial interrogation techniques," "painful and coercive approaches," and "aggressive and sometimes physical interrogation techniques." But it never employs the word that actually names what every minimally intelligent reader knows to be involved: torture. In this manner, the establishment media enables and empowers evil perpetrated by those in power. If the truth threatens our cherished notions of ourselves, it is never to be written or spoken. This administration and its apologists seek to turn all of us into a nation of monsters -- but if it is up to the establishment purveyors of "truth," we will never have occasion to learn what we have become.

It is terrible enough for our leaders to systematically engage in evil. It is incomprehensibly worse to learn that they purposely remain entirely ignorant of the meaning of their own acts. From the Washington Post article:
There is almost no scientific evidence to back up the U.S. intelligence community's use of controversial interrogation techniques in the fight against terrorism, and experts believe some painful and coercive approaches could hinder the ability to get good information, according to a new report from an intelligence advisory group.

The 374-page report from the Intelligence Science Board examines several aspects of broad interrogation methods and approaches, and it finds that no significant scientific research has been conducted in more than four decades about the effectiveness of many techniques the U.S. military and intelligence groups use regularly. Intelligence experts wrote that a lack of research could explain why abuse has been alleged at U.S. facilities in Afghanistan, Cuba and Iraq.

"Since there had been little or no development of sustained capacity for interrogation practice, training, or research within intelligence or military communities in the post-Soviet period, many interrogators were forced to 'make it up' on the fly," wrote Robert A. Fein, chairman of the study, published by the National Defense Intelligence College. "This shortfall in advanced, research-based interrogation methods at a time of intense pressure from operational commanders to produce actionable intelligence from high-value targets may have contributed significantly to the unfortunate cases of abuse that have recently come to light."

The report explores scientific knowledge on interrogation in the wake of reported abuse around the globe. The study, sponsored by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity, was posted yesterday on the Federation of American Scientists' Web site [here].


The new study finds that there may be no value to coercive techniques.

"The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information," wrote Col. Steven M. Kleinman, who has served as the Pentagon's senior intelligence officer for special survival training.

Kleinman wrote that intelligence gathered with coercion is sometimes inaccurate or false, noting that isolation, a tactic U.S. officials have used regularly, causes "profound emotional, psychological, and physical discomfort" and can "significantly and negatively impact the ability of the source to recall information accurately."
I note that this "new study" confirms every point of my previous arguments.

There remains one further, entirely sickening fact contained in the article:
[In the report], experts find that popular culture and ad hoc experimentation have fueled the use of aggressive and sometimes physical interrogation techniques to get those captured on the battlefields to talk, even if there is no evidence to support the tactics' effectiveness. The board, which advises the director of national intelligence, recommends studying the matter.
Research and science do not provide any basis whatsoever for the "effective" use of torture, as indeed they could not since all such proof is impossible. So our torturers resort instead to "popular culture and ad hoc experimentation" -- "experimentation," I forcefully remind you, on living human beings, many of whom have proven to be entirely innocent. And "popular culture" -- probably including the very successful television series, 24.

You need not wonder any longer why I have written about the great evil conveyed by 24, although I admit that even I was not prepared to find confirmation on this point in precisely this form. In "The Road to Depravity and Dictatorship," I excerpted some key parts of an article about 24 by Slavoj Zizek. In light of this latest story, here are the critical passages once again:
In the fourth season, among those tortured are the defence secretary's son-in-law and son (both with his full knowledge and support), and a female member of the CTU wrongly suspected of passing on information to terrorists. (When her innocence is revealed, she is asked to return to work immediately and accepts.) The CTU agents, after all, are dealing with the sort of "ticking-bomb" scenario evoked by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to justify torture (why not torture someone who knows the location of a bomb that is just about to kill hundreds of thousands of people?).


24 should not be seen as a simple popular depiction of the sort of problematic methods the US resorts to in its "war on terror". Much more is at stake. Recall the lesson of Apocalypse Now. The figure of Kurtz is not a remnant of some barbaric past. He was the perfect soldier but, through his over-identification with the military, he turned into the embodiment of the system's excess and threatened the system itself.

The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma. When confronted with the task of killing the Jews of Europe, the SS chief adopted the attitude of "somebody has to do the dirty job". In Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher describes how Nazi executioners endured the horrible acts they performed. Most were well aware that they were doing things that brought humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, instead of saying "What horrible things I did to people!" they would say "What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, the temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate.

There was a further "ethical problem" for Himmler: how to make sure that the executioners, while performing these terrible acts, remained human and dignified. His answer was Krishna's message to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita (Himmler always had in his pocket a leather-bound edition): act with inner distance; do not get fully involved.

Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents' and the terrorists' behaviour serves this lie.

But what if such a distance is possible? What if people do commit terrible acts as part of their job while being loving husbands, good parents and close friends? As Arendt says, the fact that they are able to retain any normality while committing such acts is the ultimate confirmation of moral depravity.
There is still more from Zizek in that earlier piece.

So there you have it: a series like 24, with its genuinely monstrous messages, serves as the basis for national policy, and as the "justification" for the systematic use of torture.

I honestly do not know how to express my profound revulsion in response to this latest story. So I will simply say that I am truly at a loss for words, and end this entry here.

At the Bottom of the Abyss (II): The Torturers Take Over

See also: The Dynamics of Rising American Fascism