Torture Chic: Sign of Decadence

The great American essayist Albert J. Nock once devoted a long piece to the question of how one knows whether or not one is living in a Dark Age. From inside such an era, of course, the question is not so simple. Historians and propagandists name ages years or even centuries after the fact, but for most of those living at the time it probably didn’t seem like the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Reformation, if only because it took a while for the characteristics that would later be seen as defining a given period to become firmly established.

However, I believe it is fairly easy to determine that however fully dark the age, we are living in a period of imperial decadence and decline for the United States. One clue is the prospect of Bush-Clinton-Clinton-Bush-Bush-Clinton presidencies, along with the inability or unwillingness of most of those considered intellectual “elites” to understand and express in words and insightful articles the utter mediocrity of these political parasites. Another is the ability of certain people and institutions in the United States – think Fox News and much of the so-called religious right – to indulge in hero-worship of such a clearly inferior person, in terms of seasoning, character, curiosity and ability to see the world realistically rather than through the eyes of sheer fantasy, as our current president.

Perhaps the clearest indication of sheer decadence, however, is the emergence of what can only be called “torture chic” in certain sectors of our ruling classes. That it is not universally considered bizarre and outlandish that a president and most of his henchmen would spend so much of their political capital on publicly gaining the “legitimized” authority to torture people, and that they would be able to carry along most of the major ruling political party and (apparently) the vast majority of the most self-conscious and eager-to-be-acknowledged “religious” or nominally Christian people in the country along with them in this clearly barbaric quest cannot be anything but a sign of decadence.

Fooling Themselves

Of course many of those who are advocating making torture something close to the official policy of the United States deny, as does the president, that what they are advocating is torture. The president claims disingenuously that his calls for these “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “aggressive interrogation tactics” are not a license to torture, simply a plea for “clarification” so those in the field can have a bright line so they know what is authorized and what isn’t. But consider what they are talking about. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (with whom I disagree about many issues but not this one) wrote recently:

“According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to ‘stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours;’ the ‘cold cell,’ in which prisoners are forced ‘to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,’ while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which ‘the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,’ and then ‘cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him,’ inducing ‘a terrifying fear of drowning.

“And bear in mind that the ‘few bad apples’ excuse doesn’t apply; these were officially approved tactics – and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.”

As numerous authorities and all of the professional interrogators I’ve talked to in the last few years claim, the use of such tactics – call them torture or not – does not (except in a few rare cases) elicit accurate information. Instead, the prisoner/detainee is more likely finally to tell the interrogators what he thinks they want to hear rather than the truth.

Phony Justifications

So the notion that there are instances, possibly numerous instances, when there is a need for key information right now because there is a bomb ticking somewhere near or an attack that is scheduled to take place within hours or minutes and torture is the only reliable way to get the information and save hundreds or thousands of lives is the stuff of fiction rather than reality. In the real world such worst-case scenarios are rare or non-existent, and torture is not only an unreliable way to get the information but is more likely a way to get false trails in multitudes. It can even lead to outcomes that in any relatively sane world would be profoundly embarrassing to the authorities so enamored of the purported need to torture.

For example, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was subjected both to the cold cell and waterboarding. Eventually he told interrogators that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained al-Qaida members to use biochemical weapons. This “confession” became a key part of the administration’s case for invading Iraq. But it was pure invention. And relying on it led to a huge disconnect between justification and the realities that emerged after the invasion of Iraq that would have been hugely embarrassing to the administration, if this administration were in fact capable of embarrassment.

Not that the president or anybody in the administration has even acknowledged, let alone apologized for, the mistakes and lies that led many Americans to support the invasion initially.

It is even more curious that in an administration in love with war that has declared so many times its admiration for the military and its desire to give the military anything it wants to succeed – except for sufficient vehicle and body armor, not to mention numbers of troops, in Iraq – is dead-set on getting torture (or close-to-torture if you insist) tactics authorized when almost all of the relevant military officials have not only said they don’t want the authority to use extreme interrogation tactics, but have come out explicitly against authorizing them.

Against Military Opposition

Colin Powell, not only former secretary of state but former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has not only opposed the administration’s approach to interrogation and detainee policies, he has worried about the U.S. losing its moral standing in the process. The three Republican senators with the most military experience – Virginia’s John Warner, a World War II vet, longtime chairman of the Armed Services Committee and in constant touch with top military officials, Arizona’s John McCain, a Vietnam vet who suffered torture himself as a POW, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, a former military lawyer – led the resistance – for a while, at least, until they folded like a cheap suit – to the administration approach.

The U.S. Army has recently revised its field manual on interrogation techniques and clearly declared that the practices described above and several others are off-limits for Army interrogators. That’s as close as we’re likely to get to an official military denunciation of the administration’s eagerness to see the use of torture officially approved.

So it isn’t that the civilians in the administration are trying to give the military and the CIA essential tools they think they need to save American lives. They are trying to foist on them tools that the military rather officially and explicitly, and many in the CIA, though perhaps less officially, specifically do not want to have, in large part because they understand they are barbaric and that their use undermines what they see as the legitimate use of force that is their bailiwick in a modern nation-state.

This fascination with torture is not just barbaric, it is downright sick. Why should people who consider themselves defenders of civilization be so eager to see them used?

Paul Krugman suggests that in the case of the administration it is simply

“To show that it can. The central drive of the Bush administration – more fundamental than any particular policy – has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president’s power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition.

“By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary. And many of our politicians are willing to go along.”

Vicarious Toughness

That’s surely part of it. Although I’m leery of psychobiography, which used to be faddish in modern culture, and urge readers to take what follows with a grain or thousand of salt, I have another possible theory.

When I was in high school I was considered one of the “brains” or “nerds.” I didn’t get into fights. In fact, I remember a particularly humiliating experience in my freshman year when a couple of bullies caught me in an isolated place on the street and made me bow and grovel before them. They didn’t actually hurt me, but they knew I was afraid they would, so they had control over me. I hated that experience and the memories of it that occasionally surfaced. Although in my head I knew that fighting was not the measure of a real man, it made me at least subconsciously harbor doubts about my manhood. Why hadn’t I stood up to these punks?

What I did about it was to go out for football. I wasn’t very good at it. I was small but I made up for it by being slow, so I ended up being an undersized lineman who didn’t get into games very often, especially if the games were close. But in practices and in the few games in which I played for significant periods of time, I proved to myself at least that I could hang in there with the biggest and toughest guys in our school and other schools. I got knocked around more than I knocked other people around, but I lost my fear of being knocked around and came back for more.

Since then nobody – literally – has tried to bully me physically, even though I am hardly an imposing physical specimen. There’s something about having physical self-confidence that deters bullies, even bullies who could probably mop up the floor with you if it came to a fight.

I suspect that many of our leaders never had the experience of proving to themselves that they were physically capable in that sort of way, and thus harbor doubts about their manhood. George W. didn’t play sports as his father – an All-American baseball player at Yale – did, but was instead a cheerleader. I’ve seen no record – maybe I’ve missed it – of Dick Cheney doing anything particularly physical that didn’t involve having a gun in his hands with the target a defenseless animal. Both passed up the opportunity to prove themselves in combat in the military.

I suspect that neither Dubya nor Cheney would personally torture people, although it’s possible if they were in a situation with others in which there was absolutely no chance of them actually getting hurt. But if they harbor, after all these years, a desire to prove they are tough that they never had a chance to validate personally and physically, I can imagine them – and plenty of other people in the political class – wanting to do so vicariously by authorizing – indeed, ordering – others to do it for them.

This may be incorrect, of course. I’m open to theories from others, perhaps eager to hear them. Because in the absence of some such explanation, the eagerness of the top two guys in the administration, plenty of others in the political classes and all too many who consider themselves thinkers or intellectuals to see torture become quasi-official policy of the United States, which used to have a reputation as the freest land on earth, verges on the sadistic and pornographic.

And it’s a clear sign of decadence.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).