The collective consciousness and the lingering spectre of torture
October 11, 2015 Leave a comment
More than the release of the Senate’s “torture report”, one of the defining moments of the American public’s reaction to the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program was the moment the New York Times decided to stop using the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe what was and is blatantly torture. Executive editor Dean Baquet wrote in August 2014,
The word “torture” had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods. (…) Over time, the landscape has shifted. Far more is now understood, such as that the C.I.A. inflicted the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times on a single detainee (…) Given those changes, reporters urged that The Times recalibrate its language. I agreed. So from now on, The Times will use the word “torture” to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.
I was reminded of this while reading a piece called “Lives by omission” in the latest issue of Harper’s. J.M. Coetzee published exchanges with psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz on the parallels between fiction and psychotherapy. In this particular excerpt, they examine the process of repression, that Freud explained distinguished human beings from beasts. Coetzee writes, “What we gain in repressing what we do not want to remember we have to pay for with the subterranean poisoning of other aspects of our lives.” Later, he provides a torture analogy:
But is it true that repression necessarily fails? To give an extreme example, certain people who have committed vile acts – torture, murder – seem able to construct life stories (memories) for themselves out of selected fragments of the real (the long hours they had to work, the gratitude of their superiors, the promotions and medals they received) and to live with and by such memories, while repressing all the ugliness. Classical theory, at least in its popular version, says that such people have unhappy relations with their wives and children. It says they suffer from nightmares. It says that they are secretly haunted by the cries of their victims – by what they try and fail to repress of their “real” past. And indeed, if you put a torturer on trial or if you compel him to undergo a course of psychic rehabilitation, he may begin to recollect those “repressed” cries.
If we see the construction of a personal narrative when committing “vile acts” – and there is no doubt that the operatives, government agents or contractors, that have taken part in the RDI program have committed vile acts – as a success of the psychological process of repression, it is difficult then to legally extract an individual responsibility for said crimes. Or is it? Yes, the gratitude of the superiors, the constant political rhetoric around the efficiency of torture, supposedly scientifically supported and pushed by legal celebrities such as torture-by-warrant proponent Alan Dershowitz – provide comfort, containment, and eventually, a levee against the perhaps inevitable wound inside the human psyche that remains after the crime, a wound that extends to the whole of humanity, as Dostoevsky expressed so well.
When Col. Larry James, former chief psychologist at Guantanamo, responded – reacted – to the APA motion banning its members from colluding with the CIA and the Pentagon on interrogation techniques, he did so by claiming the motion, the legal opinion of which I have written, holds “negative consequences”. In the APA debate taking hold before the vote, James asked:
So I need to know: Does international law supersede U.S. law? Because if the answer to that is yes, this has dire negative consequences for all federal employees, particularly in the VA and the department of homeland defense.
APA president-elect Susan McDaniel said the vote was to “reset our moral compass”. And yet, there is a continued willingness to push a narrative of efficiency and most importantly necessity from which a portion of the US public had started to distance themselves. Even the paper of record had a moment of reckoning with the ubiquitous use of comfortable and convenient paraphrases – enhanced interrogation techniques – realizing their responsibility in the dissonance between public political discourse lied in telling the truth as it stood and stands, not furthering the lie. There is no way of knowing whether Col. James, as a public persona, aligns with Larry James, the private individual, on the issue of torture. Another aspect of the APA motion was that it stopped providing the CIA and the Pentagon with their medical crutch, a huge part of their justification for their actions; it also confronted APA members with themselves, their actions, and their beliefs, depending on how well rooted they were. As sole dissenter, Larry James isolated himself in a landmark decision that will affect future operations of US intelligence agencies and their collaborators. He placed himself on a different shelf, aligned himself with the US’ interpretation of the Convention Against Torture that was laid out by John Yoo. He worried about criminal responsibility if the APA took a position on the absolute prohibition that aligned with international law, not with the American political context of the war on terror.
Human rights law is not rhetorical. It was not written as such and is a difficult area of practice. It is often mentioned that legal positivism is a question of morality, conscience and interpretation – all of which being subjective – but it was meant to translate into effective and immediate remedies for those affected by the violations of these peremptory norms. The prohibition of torture, although it is an intersectional and interdisciplinary issue to approach, is no different. It is part of this body of law that holds within it the fundamental principles of humanism and a loaded collective memory. Speaking of the prohibition of torture as the absolute that it is has been derided to great extent since 9/11, as being unpractical and inapplicable on the ground. The role of the APA in supporting torture was to create a sound argument for exemption, a legally acceptable derogation, hitting back at IHRL for existing outside of a reality of constant violence, fear, and imminent threats. The world had changed, we were told; it took a turn for the worst; we would not be much of a society if we did not do whatever it takes into protect each other from those external and shapeless monsters that are jeopardizing all this stability we have created. Torture is a collateral crime; it is the result of our back against the wall; it is an answer of last resort that no one wishes to brag about, but still needs to use when – we are told – all other methods failed.
But the prohibition of torture is an absolute; human rights law resists against political derogations; and the truth lies outside the scope of Col. James’ arguments. We have had an opportunity to look at this torture-we-dared-not-speak-of in 2006 and 2007 through European Parliament rapporteurs Dick Marty and Claudio Fava. Their work failed to challenge overseas. Europeans, their commitment to the rule of law and their stubborn refusal to accept a war paradigm for counter terrorism will have to wait until Bin Laden is killed. It did not matter. Those reports were academic, had gaping holes where ministers were supposed to testify, untimely, and pitted natural allies against one another on questions of principle.
Feinstein’s report shifted the attention away from the purported accomplishments of special forces overseas to what they were doing in “black sites”, in Bagram, in Guantanamo, and everywhere else. It showed the general public, weary of battles of words, a side to their endless but righteous war they were not ready to face. The backlash has yet to be immense. President Obama admitted the US “tortured some folks”, and there are still no charges, no indictment. There had been a suspension of the repression, a brief moment of lucidity, during which the horror was contemplated. In those moments, there are no nuances. There are no spectrums of opinion; there is no gradual assessment. We are horrified, or we are not. It is a choice. It is fundamental to frame it as a choice, because for the first time, the general public – not lawyers, not activists, not officials-speaking-on-condition-of-anonymity – were in the know. There was an incomplete, yes, but sufficient glance at the truth. We can stare at it, as the APA did, 6 years after the first draft of the motion was submitted, and act on it, fight, struggle, and scratch beneath the surface; or we can turn away. We can pretend those practices were small moments between brackets of our collective history; a bygone footnote of a much bigger context.
But if it needs repression to be worked out, it is much more important than a footnote. Repression is a tool that shapes one’s identity. The piece I quoted before imagines what a torturer on trial would face, a sort of crash course in psychoanalysis: “… If memory is malleable in one direction, obliterating what disturbs the subject, it is surely malleable in the opposite direction too.” And if the rule of action and reaction also applies to the human psyche – for a stone to roll on a plane surface, it needs a force to project its weight forward – that crucial moment in our collective memory has yet to happen. The catharsis we expected from the passing of the APA motion did not take place. The administration did not take note. The UN committee against torture continues to plead for acknowledgement, truth, accountability, reparations. Those are not symbolic; truth and accountability can begin a process of healing, and of returning to the roots of the absolute prohibition. There is still much we need to know. We need access to the medical files of Guantanamo detainees; we need the stories of those detained at Bagram; we need the memoranda of understanding between the CIA and collaborating countries to understand how the US persuaded member states to take part in the program, from simple material support – Ireland lending the Shannon airport airfield for refuel – to construction and maintenance of sites in Poland, Lithuania, Romania and many other places. Ben Emmerson called the rendition private a vast international conspiracy. How the Obama administration expects us to forgive and forget is just as unclear. Or maybe the expectations are so low in what our collective threshold of tolerance is, that it becomes acceptable to whitewash a crime of this magnitude.
As the countdown has started on the 30 days during which Congress can oppose the release of long time detainee and British national Shaker Aamer, the question of the motive for his prolonged incarceration – he was cleared for release twice, in 2007 and 2008 – rises again. It is unclear how much we will know about his medical history between his capture and his release, whether medical professionals in London will have access to to treat him, if he will be able or willing to speak. Andy Worthington, a journalist who has spearheaded the campaign for his release, has often pondered whether Aamer was the detainee who knew or saw too much. What this effectively means, we are still not sure. Aamer’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, warned us in an op-ed that a campaign of misinformation seeking to justify the treatment inflicted upon a man never charged with a crime and sold to US authorities by local warlords in Afghanistan would begin. We have a duty not to repress what we know of Shaker Aamer’s torture. We have a duty to resist and endure a debate that should last, no matter how nauseating the details and painful the recollections, until we have full accountability.
When the authors of the APA motion first contacted me, they mentioned my background: I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, under British counter terrorism policies that included the use of torture. It has been part of our small, local, contained history – or so we thought: the evolution of psychological torture, from Kubark to Belfast to Bagram, is now established as linear. On November 30, the judicial review for the case known as the “Hooded Men” will open in the city, and the battle for public versus withheld information will continue to rage. There is a responsibility that lies with those of us who have seen the future of a policy of impunity not to see it reemerge elsewhere.
And this responsibility isn’t rhetorical either.