When Democracies Torture

Take a look at the following list. Check off how many of the these you have heard from the U.S. Government in the last eight years in response to accusations of torture:

  1. Absolute and complete denial, accompanied by attacks on those who expose the treatment.
  2. Minimisation of the abuse — this includes a refusal to call what is happening “torture”.  It is at this point that we start to hear phrases such as “interrogation in depth” and “enhanced interrogation.”
  3. Disparagement of the torture victims, often describing them as thugs, murderers and terrorists and that “we must do what is necessary to stop them”.
  4. Proclaiming that the treatment meted out was effective in producing invaluable information and that this had saved lives.
  5. That those who protest against the use of such techniques are aiding the enemy and are therefore unpatriotic.
  6. Claiming that torture is no longer happening and that those who keep referring to it are damaging the country by continually “raking up the past”.
  7. That any torture that took place was carried out by “a few bad apples” rather than institutionalised in any way.
  8. Presenting a rationalisation of one’s torture policy by stating that the techniques used were not as bad as those used by ‘evil’ regimes. In other words, the humane torture argument, or “torture lite”, as waterboarding has been described.
  9. That none of the torture victims were badly hurt and that they would all get over it.

I would add a tenth to this list, namely “that we are unable to address these accusations for reasons of national security.”

For the record, the list is a much abbreviated version of one that appears in John Conroy’s book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People. Conroy compiled it following three separate investigations into torture either by or within democracies. These included: the British in Northern Ireland; the Israeli treatment of Palestinians; and, systemic brutality in the Chicago police department. Importantly, the book was published in 1990, long before the events of 9/11, the establishment of Guantanamo Bay, or the revelations of Abu Ghraib.

What Conroy discovered was that the responses by those in power are predictable when democracies resort to torture. What’s that old saying about history and repetition again?

Fundamentally, each of these nine responses tries to hide or distort the truth, and behind these distortions is an implicit knowledge of wrongdoing and illegality.

What is more dangerous for democracy, however, is that cumulatively these responses are generally successful in salving any public indignation.

 Now that President Obama has finally decided to open a full investigation into the use of torture by the CIA during the Bush years, it is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the tactics and rhetoric that torturers and their enablers use to cover their deeds.

One Response

  1. […] a couple of extracts taken from yesterday’s WSJ editorial and compare it to John Conroy’s list, from a previous post, of the excuses that torturers and their enablers use to ‘justify’ […]

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