Wars, Torture, and ‘Others’

Often in this space, the subject of militarized police comes up. The connection between America’s domestic cops and its war-making actions abroad is psychological, aesthetic, and literal.

The country has a police force and a criminal justice system that react aggressively to minor or consensual criminal behavior, and even expressions of rights such as the one to protest. Our prisons and jails are full past bursting with 2.2 million people. Why? Well, because of the criminalization of everything. But mainly the war on drugs was the engine behind that domestic policy disaster. And though there have always been moralizing, true believers determined to fight the latest narcotic scourge, this fight – like any other conflict – was born with a nasty, cynical heart. Fear of minorities and immigrants on marijuana, cocaine, and morphine hastened their bans in the first three decades of the 20th century. And in the 1970s, Richard Nixon made the war on drugs official because he was dying for a successful, flashy domestic policy program. Kids, radicals, and minorities did drugs. Middle America didn’t (at least in theory). So they would support the fight.

Like the tempting, but evil argument that we must bring back the draft in order to make America give a damn about its wars, the war on drugs makes one almost hope that middle or upper class white people get snagged in the criminal justice system so that they can know what the last few decades have been like for the less fortunate. It is wrong to hope for someone else’s misery, but the question lingers – how else do you get people to understand the wrong that is done to so many people, just not to them? Human beings are good at caring about themselves and their families, and they have trouble caring about The Other.

Drug users are one such other. One hundred million Americans have used marijuana, but only in the past five or so years has there been any movement against the war on drugs as a policy. Residential drug raids are a little more of a democratic medium of oppression than the more blatantly racist police policies like the NYPD’s decade-plus policy of Stop and Frisk. Yet, like a modestly dressed woman who swears she will never be sexually assaulted, the average person assumes they won’t be the recipient of a SWAT raid for drugs. And hell, odds are they won’t be. So that makes it fine. Or if not fine, then entirely ignorable.

This sounds a lot like war and a lot like torture. Uncomfortable stuff, but easy to brush off when it’s not you.

On Tuesday, the Senate’s study of the CIA’s Bush era torture of detainees was released in 500 page summary form. This was huge news, and it is much too early tell if it will change any minds on torture being justifiable.

Americans waffled on the morality and justifiability of torture all through the war on terror. As a December 10 Washington Post headline from Aaron Blake notes, "Americans have no idea what they really think about torture". Blake writes, "depending on how you ask the question, support for using torture in at least some cases – even rare ones – has polled at 70 percent-plus, around 50 percent, and also at just 38 percent." He also notes that the Abu Ghraib scandal didn’t do much to change this all-over-the-map feeling. Gallup polls from 2005 suggest that Americans oppose torture. But they oppose it when you explain to them what it might involve. They do not concern themselves with the larger philosophical and moral questions surrounding torture if it is being done to "keep them safe."

If you’re morally opposed to torture, you say that it should never be used. If you’re willing to have it used only in the oft-repeated-except-in-real-life "ticking bomb" scenario, you still are going to say you’re for it. People who implicitly trust the CIA, Congress, or the executive branch have already granted them the power to do whatever they decide is prudent. And nobody ever restrains their own power. History keeps teaching us a lesson we refuse to learn: to grant power is to grant its abuse.

So, the CIA is out of control. The US tortured. We knew this a decade ago – as we knew the NSA was spying on Americans back when Edward Snowden was in high school – but we have more grim details now. Unfortunately, I don’t think this report will make much difference. If we can’t summon the wherewithal to care when a 16-year-old American citizen is killed by a drone; if the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis aren’t even visible from up here on this shining city on a hill; what chance do suspected foreign terrorists have in engendering enough empathy to change minds?

Sure, the details are grim. Sexual torture, games of Russian Roulette, waterboarding, threats against detainees’ family members. Sure, there were a few innocent people – 26 of them, by the report’s estimate. There were also no more 9/11s. The CIA must have been on to something there.

Speak to any mainstream conservative and you will be reminded that there are people who truly believe that American lives are more important than the lives of anyone else. (This honorary status enjoyed under American Exceptionalism is generally extended to Israelis as well.) Yet, conservatives were the engine of law and order which gave us the soft police and prison state we suffer from today. (Democrats happily helped, so they could look tough).

The America-firsters were happy to build a country where the Fourth Amendment is in tatters, the prisons are fat and full, and the rights of the American individual were squashed into the pavement. Why? Because drugs are a threat. More particularly, users of drugs were a threat. Their lives were forfeited when a greater cause necessitated that sacrifice. Being American wasn’t enough to protect them from the "othering power." Tortured or not, no foreigner suspected of terrorism can provoke empathy in a country where even its own citizens have proven to be so expendable.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.