Friday, April 17, 2009

The Torture Memos

The Bush torture memos have just been released. What is there to say? A lot. Fortunately for me Andrew Sullivan is blogging about them as well as aggregating (and linking to) much other commentary. He expresses my view very well so I will just provide short quotes and links to the full posts here.
Perhaps you are reading these documents alongside me. I've only read the Bybee memo, as chilling an artefact as you are ever likely to read in a democratic society, the work clearly not of a lawyer assessing torture techniques in good faith, but of an administration official tasked with finding how torture techniques already decided upon can be parsed in exquisitely disingenuous ways to fit the law, even when they clearly do not. This is what Hannah Arendt wrote of when she talked of the banality of evil.
From The Banality of Evil
The president's statement that he does not seek to prosecute CIA staffers who tortured suspects believing in good faith that they had legal authority to do what they did is not quite as blanket as it sounds. If evidence emerges of bad faith in torture sessions, then those staffers may well face legal consequences. Ditto if the legal advice was given in bad faith, along Nuremberg lines, Yoo and Bybee should start sweating.
From The Question Of Immunity
One thing is also increasingly clear from the torture memos: medical professionals were indeed present throughout the torture sessions, carefully monitoring and measuring the health and suffering of the torture victims. There is no conceivable way in which this is compatible with the Hippocratic oath, or with minimal standards of medical ethics.
From The Doctors
This much we know: under Bush, the United States insisted that these principles did not apply to its own government. Our standards are now lower for the US than they were once for Nazi Germany.
From The Nuremberg Principle
Greenwald points to this nugget:
They explicitly recognized that the techniques they were authorizing were ones that we condemned other countries for using -- including as "torture" -- but nonetheless approved them, explicitly saying that the standards we impose on others do not bind us in any way.
And this is, in fact, the Bush-Cheney position. Because America did these things, they are not torture. This is also, by the way, the position of the news reporters and editors at the New York Times and the Washington Post. Does anyone believe that if Iran, say, captured an American soldier, kept him awake for eleven days straight, bashed his head and body against plywood walls with a towel around his neck, forced him to stand and sit in stress positions finessed by the Communist Chinese, stuck him in a dark coffin for hours, and then waterboarded him, that the NYT would describe him as a victim of "harsh interrogation techniques"?
From We Are Now Indonesia

And read his quotes from other commentary in the press and the blogosphere.

And if you really want to cry for this country, read Andrew's long analysis which includes:
Moreover, this was done by the professional classes in this society. It was not done by Lynndie England or some night-shift sadists at Abu Ghraib. According to these documents, almost nothing that was done at Abu Ghraib was outside the limits agreed to by Bush - and much of what was done at Abu Ghraib was mild in comparison. So when the president acted "shocked" at what we all saw, and said it was not America, he was also authorizing far worse in secret - and systematizing it long after Abu Ghraib was over. He was either therefore a fantastic liar on one of the gravest matters imaginable or so psychologically compartmentalized and prone to rigid denial of reality and so unversed in history, law and morality that he had no reason being president.

If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos. Read how gifted professionals in the CIA were able to convince experienced doctors that what they were doing was ethical and legal. Read how American psychologists were able to find justifications for the imposition of psychological torture, and were able to analyze its effects without ever stopping and asking: what on earth are we doing?

Read how no one is even close to debating "ticking time bomb" scenarios as they strap people to boards and drown them until they break. Then read how they adjusted the waterboarding, for fear it was too much, for fear that they were actually in danger of suffocating their captives, and then read how they found self-described loopholes in the law to tell themselves that what the US had once prosecuted as torture could not possibly be torture because we're doing it, and we're different from the Viet Cong. We're doing torture right and for the right reasons and with the right motive. Many of the people who did this are mild, kind, courteous, family men and women, who somehow were able to defend slamming human beings against walls in the daytime while watching the Charlie Rose show over a glass of wine at night. We've seen this syndrome before, in other places and at other times. Yes: it can happen here. And imagine how this already functioning torture machine would have operated in the wake of another attack under a president Romney or Giuliani.

It is this professionalism and bureaucratic mastery that chills in the end.
From The Bigger Picture

In fact, you should read Andrew Sullivan regularly, including his "Mental Health breaks, which are truly necessary.

Read the rest!

Home from Italy

My long absence from this blog was due to a 2 week trip to northern Italy. I'm leaving again tomorrow but this time I will have my computer with me so I hope I have time to post when traveling.

I would like to make an observation on the effect of viewing at the world from a different perspective. In particular, lets look at the way government (but not only government) operates in the US and in Italy. The last few days of our trip we were staying at a small hotel in a suburb of Verona where my husband was working with a printing company to produce his photographic monograph. A lot of fiber cable was being laid in Italy. We had noticed this throughout our trip. Down the main street of this town a small crew of 3 or 4 men worked, a few building widths a day, digging a trench, laying the fiber and then closing the trench and repairing the pavement, causing minimal disruption to businesses in the town.

Compare this to the approach in the US. In Tucson the interstate highway (I 10) around/through the city is being widened. For 3 years the major exits and entrances to the city are closed. Even without this economic climate I can believe that many of the businesses that relied on travelers will fail before the exits are again open. Hundreds of jobs will probably be lost. How many times have you encountered lane closings on highways where no one was seen for miles until you encountered a small crew working in a very localized area, with traffic jammed for miles. Sometimes you encounter lane closings for miles where there is no work going on anywhere. These lane closings are designed for efficiency we are told. An American obsession. But efficiency is a matter of definition. The calculation of efficiency depends upon just whose efficiency you care about and can be easily manipulated by simply taking into account only the concerns of those you care to include.

In Italy the concern was for the efficiency of the entire society, not just whatever department was in charge of the installation. Disruption was minimized. In the US the concern only extends to the limit of control of the institution making the calculation. Disruption of others, or even the whole society, is not a concern. There is not just one way that work can be organized to achieve the same result. How you take into account those you will affect does matter.

Read the rest!