Brief History of Torture in this Country

Torture has been routinely practiced by both European and Native American people in this country.

In the 1890’s, the Supreme Court ruled that torture as a punishment violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

That did not slow the use of torture by private individuals, law enforcement, and the military.

Lynching black men for being “uppity” began in 1882 and continued through at least 1981 accounting for somewhere around 5000 deaths.

Police forces used “third degree” tactics which met current definitions of torture to elicit confessions for the first half of the 20th century. In the 70’s and 80’s, Chicago police use electroshock, near-suffocation, and excessive beatings on suspects. A Texas sheriff in 1983 used waterboarding. Two San Bernardino officers were convicted of torturing suspects in 1997. Prison abuses have been wide spread for decades including electroshock, sexual slavery, rape, and forcible tooth extraction.

The US military tortured German U-boat crewmen during WWII. The CIA emerged as the primary sponsor of torture during the Viet Nam war with the South Vietnamese Army acting under their supervision. During the 70’s and 80’s the CIA trained members of South American right wing governments in torture techniques to repress populist reform uprisings. Brazil’s National Truth Commission blamed the US government for teaching torture techniques to the Brazilian military that was in power from 1964-1985.

In 1948 the United States signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibiting torture. The US was one of the countries that participated in drafting this document. It was in direct response to the treatment of US POW’s at the hands of the Japanese and Germans. This was followed by the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both signed in 1977 in direct response to the excesses of the Viet Nam War. These conventions are the foundation for International Law which mandates that any person involved in ordering, allowing, or even failing to prevent or prosecute torture is criminally liable.

Ronald Reagan signed the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This was when Reagan was admonishing Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall. China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution, but was still communist in structure and ideology. There were plenty of fingers that Reagan wanted to point regarding oppression and torture.

The difference in all of this was that until 2001, torture (though widely practiced in this country) was illegal. In 2001 all of that changed.

In 2001 in the wake of 9/11 attacks, the President Bush gave VP Dick Cheney responsibility to gather whatever information he needed using whatever methods he required to prevent another attack on US soil. Cheney instructed his lawyers to redefine what the word torture meant, turned the CIA loose, and the rest is history.

Cheney belligerently defends the choices that he made even today, but his protests ring hollow.

He continues to insist, as President Bush did, that the US did not engage in torture – but that method of Big Lie politics no longer works with a majority of the American people.

His second defense is that he did what he had to do to keep the country safe. His definition of keeping the country safe was that there has been no repeat of 9/11. Instead we are left with the legacy of two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise of ISIS.

Instead of being welcomed as liberators, the invasion of Iraq dangerously destabilized the region. Cheney’s neocon vision of a democratic transformation morphed into just another puppet government in Iraq. That government pursued the same old sectarian divisions as Saddam. Those continued sanctioned oppressions provided ISIS an opportunity to mount what in effect is a Sunni revolt against the Maliki government in Iraq and the Assad dictatorship in Syria.

The US invasion of Iraq and the promise to establish a US client state that would transform the whole region also raised alarms in neighboring Iran. Iran felt that the only way it could defend itself from a similar US invasion at some point in the future would be to develop a nuclear weapon.

All this in the name of “keeping America safe”.

If you parse Cheney’s responses to questions closely, he defines torture in the context of the 9/11 victims.

“Torture to me,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “is an American citizen on a cellphone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.”

Some attribute that to just setting a high bar for just about any retaliatory action. In other words, unless you kill thousands of innocent people, you haven’t committed an act of torture. He says this with a straight face even though the war in Iraq killed well over 100K civilians.

But that wasn’t his primary purpose. His primary purpose was to advocate a particular world view held by Neocons. That point of view suggested that the US was the sole remaining super power in the world, but the only way that US could remain in that dominant position would be to regularly demonstrate its superiority through the unilateral exercise of force.

Here’s Paul Krugman’s explanation.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated, but let’s not forget how we ended up invading Iraq. It wasn’t a response to 9/11, or to evidence of a heightened threat. It was, instead, a war of choice to demonstrate U.S. power and serve as a proof of concept for a whole series of wars neocons were eager to fight. Remember “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”?

The point is that there is a still-powerful political faction in America committed to the view that conquest pays, and that in general the way to be strong is to act tough and make other people afraid. One suspects, by the way, that this false notion of power was why the architects of war made torture routine — it wasn’t so much about results as about demonstrating a willingness to do whatever it takes.

The willingness to do whatever it takes is where Cheney makes his stand.

This philosophy allows Cheney to posture as a macho-man and criticize those who oppose him as “soft”. But when you look past the rhetoric at the man, you discover that his actions don’t match his rhetoric. He’s all talk and no walk. This is simple solipsism of a self-centered egomaniac.

The results are easy to point out.

When he was in office, Cheney was one of the loudest proponents of expansion of executive power. Torture, domestic spying, black site renditions, outing of a CIA agent to punish her husband, the Patriot Act, private meetings with Oil companies to set the energy agenda, and outsourcing the Iraq war to contractors like Halliburton are just a few examples.

Yet when Obama has exercised the same executive power, Cheney said that the President went, “far beyond what was ever intended.” He has consistently called the President weak on terrorism, but by his own measure, this President has also prevented a repeat of a domestic 9/11 attack. Employing the same logic, shouldn’t Obama’s methods be graded on the same “results are all that matters” scale as Cheney’s?

So it isn’t really the substance of the action that interests Cheney and his supporters, it is the intent of that action. If the goal is something that neocons support, no action is unreasonable to achieve it. In fact, the more extreme the action, the better because it demonstrates the deep commitment to principle of the actor. If those same actions are employed by a progressive President, however, to further his agenda, the means and the ends are both illegitimate.

Putin is the foreign leader Cheney does appear to admire. This is the same Putin whose annexation of Crimea led to the collapse of the Russian economy and a run on the ruble. That collapse was accelerated by the sanctions that a “weak” Obama put in place and the oil exploration boom that Obama supported. Less noticed were the dire predictions of the “Cheney” crowd of an expansionist Russia that failed to materialize.

Instead we have a more compliant Russia supporting US actions in Syria and Iran. Not surprising that we have heard little from Cheney about any of this.

This brings us back to the question of torture.

Torture is wrong whenever it is practiced.

Even if it did result in useful information, it is wrong and can’t be justified. The reason it can’t ever be justified is because we are a nation of laws based on a shared constitution. Neither the law nor the constitution are relativist documents. No end justifies a means that includes unconstitutional or illegal activities. Fortunately it has again become illegal for anyone to use torture in our military or our intelligence services.

Cheney and his crew may claim to be strong, but they were not willing to put themselves at risk for the principles they supported. They also made sure that a law was passed in 2006 to shield them from future prosecution as a result of their actions.

When push came to shove in Cheney’s personal life, his actions consistently failed to reflect his speech. He actively avoided military service. He strongly defended his daughter’s right to marry her same sex partner. He let Scooter Libbey take the fall for his plan to punish Joe Wilson for questioning the facts around Iraq’s claimed nuclear program. He leveraged his insider position as Secretary of Defense into a CEO job with Halliburton by laying the groundwork for a massive outsourcing of military operations to private companies. During his time at Halliburton, the company went from 73rd to 18th in the list of government contractors. It was also ultimately fired by the GAO for over-billing. Cheney retired from Halliburton to join the Bush ticket in 2000. They gave him a $33.7M retirement package. About that same time they were rehired by the defense department. Haliburton went on to make $39B off the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Cheney’s significant holdings in Halliburton where placed in a blind trust during his time in office, but did very well. Cheney did donate a significant amount of the money he made from his association with Haliburton to charity, but donating money obtained illegally or at least immorally does not cleanse the method by which that money was obtained in the first place.

The strong are those who are willing to stand up for our values and willing to take the risk that those values may leave us vulnerable in some way. They believe in the principles on which this country was founded. Those who claim that they only way that we can defend our values is to abandon them are the real cowards. God and history will hold them accountable much more effectively that I ever could.

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