America and Torture Have a Long and Painful History

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Perhaps we protest too much. Torture, after all, is a venerable American tradition. We were waterboarding captives in one of our earliest wars of occupation, the Philippine-American War, which cost as many as 1 million civilian lives. In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt himself wrote with laconic praise of “the old Filipino method.”

Other techniques, crude or sophisticated, have filled the war bag since. CIA interrogation manuals from the 1960s, which lay out the basic stress-position and sleep- and sensory-deprivation techniques later applied at Bagram and Guantanamo, have been public since 1997. Despite our protestations, we have little to be surprised about. The Bush administration’s great act of hubris was not to allow torture – that was nothing new – but to attempt to shelter it within the law. Now, when President Barack Obama vows that “the United States does not torture” and spars with the former vice president over details, he crosses his fingers behind his back and saves himself a loophole. Via “extraordinary rendition” – a Clinton administration innovation – our government is still free to outsource torture and claim it doesn’t know. The Obama administration has been relying increasingly on foreign intelligence services to detain and interrogate our suspects for us. Our hands, in a way, are clean.

Yet as more classified documents dribble into the headlines, we hold tight to our outrage. The scandal has been breaking for five full years, but still we claim not to recognize ourselves. Despite hundreds of front-page stories, we pretend we didn’t know, that it was all somehow kept secret from us. ” ‘Secret,’ ” author Mark Danner has observed in the New York Review of Books , “has become an oddly complex word.” It refers not to things we don’t know but to things we won’t admit to seeing. This blindness serves a function. By declaring torture anomalous, by pushing it once again to the margins of legality, we can preserve a vision of U.S. military power – and of American empire – that is essentially benevolent.

That vision – of our nation’s messianic role, its unique destiny to shower the world with freedom and democracy – has been at the root of our self-image for more than a century. Even when we know better, we are loath to let it go, even when we understand that those showers often take the form of 500-pound bombs and that self-determination is not something that can be bestowed at gunpoint. Maintaining military and economic hegemony over the planet remains an inherently bloody affair. Seen from the other side, empire is a synonym for subjugation and hence for violence on a massive scale.

You don’t have to be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to find our self-regard wanting. All that’s required is minimal attention to the fates suffered by the citizens of the nations to which we are currently delivering democracy. Take the residents of the Bala Baluk district of Afghanistan’s western Farah province, where, on the evening of May 6, U.S. air strikes killed either 147 or 20 to 30 civilians, depending whether you prefer to believe, respectively, the people bombed or the ones who bombed them. Survivors described extended families wiped out, a nightmare landscape littered with human limbs. Being waterboarded 183 times suddenly doesn’t sound so bad.

That bombing was hardly extraordinary. You may remember the 37 civilians killed outside Kandahar on Nov. 4, the 90 killed near Herat on Aug. 22, the 47 killed in Nangarhar province on July 6 or the 15 killed in Nuristan two days earlier. If not, don’t blame yourself. Unless the body count approaches 100, these kinds of deaths barely merit a word on CNN’s crawl.

And as our war spreads into Pakistan, such incidents are on the rise. Missiles launched from unmanned drones have killed 700 civilians in Pakistan since 2006 and, we are assured, 14 al-Qaida leaders. (Obama has been drastically increasing the number of drone strikes, which Leon Panetta, his CIA director, has called “the only game in town.”) Meanwhile, back in Iraq, one of the more moderate estimates of the civilian death toll hovers near 100,000. Doesn’t it seem odd that it’s only torture that appalls us?

As the deaths mount, we will continue to beat our breasts about the treatment of detainees. The outcry is not unjustified. My point is not to relativize torture: We should not torture anyone. But we do and have done so, both directly and with the help of client states, for many years. Just as in war after war, the alleged costs of our well-being have been borne by people we will never see, most of them noncombatants.

This is the price of global sovereignty, of being, in Colin Powell’s words, “the biggest bully on the block.” President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney knew this, and they were unapologetic. Obama knows it too, but he has worked hard to let us believe otherwise, to patch up the tattered fantasy that we are the country we imagine ourselves to be.

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel “The Suitors” and a fellow of the Horizon Institute.

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