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Pretending it Didn’t Happen

When the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture arrived three weeks ago it was treated by almost everyone in high office like a flaming bag of dog excrement tossed on the porch by pranksters. President Obama held his nose and kept his head down allowing CIA Director Brennan to trash it. With the notable exception of Senator McCain, Republicans treated it as a partisan assault unworthy of meaningful response. Democrats weren’t much better, leaving it to chairwoman Feinstein and lame duck Senator Mark Udall to mount a defense and call for accountability. Everyone running for president in 2016 seemed tongue tied, finger to the air to see where the political winds might be blowing on this one. Needless to say, Vice President Cheney was unperturbed and unrepentant. He and his team of lawyers who gave the green light, his psychologists who designed the program, and his interrogators who did the deed were patriots, one and all! So much for political leadership on one of the great moral failures of our generation.

Equally into avoidance was mainstream religious leadership. A survey of websites reveals just a few news stories, quotes mostly left to lower level staff, and deferral to coalitions like the Religious Coaltion Against Torture. As a former head of church I harbor no illusions about the impact of church leaders’ statements. But that hasn’t stopped my former colleagues and successors from having an opinion on many other topics. On this there was near silence. So much for religious leadership on one of the great moral failures of our generation.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post published the results of a poll in mid-December which found that 58% of Americans believe that torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.” Only 31% were opposed. And in spite of the Report’s clear determination that no actionable information was obtained by torture, 53% of those polled believe it is a useful interrogation technique. It’s hard to know whether we’re dealing with willful ignorance or willful denial. So much for citizen leadership on one of the great moral failures of our generation.

To summarize: Most public officials, most religious leaders, and most of the American public feel that brutal torture in our name, including torture of completely innocent people, that is in clear violation of international and US law, conducted by an agency of the government that was willing to repeatedly lie to the Administration, the Congress, and the American people is not that big a deal! Astonishing! The politicans, looking at 2016, have determined it isn’t something to worry about. Religious leaders, looking at who knows what in Advent, have quickly moved on. The American public? A mystery.

Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, writing in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reflects on the use of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation” for torture.

“Whereas countries like Egypt and Myanmar leave torture to thugs who work over their victims’ bodies in windowless cells, expecting news of their work to travel, the United States has brought in psychologists, doctors, lawyers, and spin doctors to rework it into torture bureaucratized to code, torture engineered for plausible deniability. This is torture, American style. But euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation” are also a symptom of repressed shame. The resort to euphemism betrays shame about that which cannot be honestly named. Now, finally, honesty is making a comeback.”

We’ll see.

The New York Times made a valiant effort just before Christmas to keep the story alive, editorializing that accountability cannot be avoided, going so far as to call for criminal investigations of high public officials responsible for torture, including the former Vice President himself. Don’t expect this story to have legs. Meanwhile, the smoking bag of excrement still sits on America’s front porch, delivered not by pranksters but by real patriots who’ve managed to maintain some sort of moral compass. We can only hold our collective noses for so long.

John H. Thomas
New Years’ Day, 2015

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