Blame it on Hollywood.
Too many spy movies and post-9/11 television dramas have featured a hard-charging protagonist whose mission is to stop the evildoers by any means necessary. Torture is an oft-used weapon in his arsenal. Just think of 24’s Jack Bauer, who rarely paused before subjecting a suspect to all manner of brutal and ghastly techniques, supposedly to glean live-saving information.
Then there was Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliantly executed Zero Dark Thirty, which purports to tell the true story (Hollywoodized, of course) of the capture of Osama bin Laden. After a detainee is brutalized, he gives up bits of information that eventually lead to bin Laden’s hideout.
Given the popularity of such dramas, it’s no wonder that so few Americans seem troubled by the Senate’s report on the CIA’s use of torture, a damning document that makes it perfectly clear that the United States violated international treaties, flouted our own laws and lost our moral compass. Yet 53 percent of Americans believe that torture against suspected terrorists can often or sometimes be justified to extract important information, according to a Pew Report from 2011.
Will the new report change that? Can we Americans stand to look deep into the abyss and see ourselves reflected back?
In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s signing statement on the United Nations Convention Against Torture said, “Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.” Will Reagan’s party now stand up for his values?
It’s unlikely. While one or two brave Republicans — Arizona Sen. John McCain, chief among them — have assailed the use of torture since the report’s release, most conservatives have painted this as just another partisan battle.
What happened to the nation that sees itself as exceptional, as the “shining city on a hill”? What happened to a people who believe we set a righteous example for the world?
Fear was a great part of our moral collapse. After the stunning atrocity that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people, Americans were terrified that other attacks were in the offing. We were willing to close our eyes to the CIA’S tactics as long as they purported to keep us safe.
But here’s one important way that Hollywood’s version differs from real life: Torture doesn’t work as a tactic of interrogation. Initially, the CIA’s experts in interrogation were leery of it, having concluded years earlier that it frequently led to bad information. The Pentagon wanted nothing to do with it. (The reluctance of military men to engage in torture might help explain the email mentioned in the report that predicted that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell would “blow his stack” if he were informed about what was going on.)
The Senate report is replete with cases in which torture turned up nothing useful, including in the most famous CIA coup of all: the capture of bin Laden. Bigelow was used by the agency for propaganda purposes. The most useful clues were obtained in other ways. In fact, several detainees who were tortured went out of their way to give misleading information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. Other detainees just said what they thought their captors wanted to hear.
Think about it. If you were being waterboarded — which is simulated drowning — or “fed” through your rectum, wouldn’t you say anything to get your oppressors to stop?
As bad as the CIA’s use of torture was, there is something that is even worse: Its representatives repeatedly lied to the elected politicians whose job it is to keep an eye on clandestine operations. Just like every B movie you’ve ever seen about some rogue operation by a secret government agency, the CIA prevaricated, covered up and even destroyed documents to keep members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from finding out what it was up to. The agency even lied to the White House.
That’s really all you need to know about how morally corrupting torture is: It represents a threat to democracy itself. Now that’s the plot that deserves a place on the big screen.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb