CIA Torture: Does 'Never Again' Mean Again and Again?

12/12/2014 10:41 GMT | Updated 10/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Is it possible to be indifferent to the U.S. Senate report on CIA interrogation? Critics of the report warn it will provoke anti-US attacks today. My concern is that it will engender the same sort of torture in the future.

One important function of this exercise in transparency is not the unveiling of information, but the veiling of brutal, self-justified power. That function can be found in the spectacle of a country patting itself on the back for exposing its wrongdoing; for 'coming clean'. Praise is not unworthy - it is indeed commendable for a government to declare and detail how it has offended its ideals, betrayed its people, and committed crimes against others.

At the root of revealing the truth, though, is the twofold process of re-establishing power and rebuilding the myth of exceptionalism. On the former point, President Obama is clear: these techniques did significant damage to America's standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners. By undermining its reputation and pulling a Gillooly on human rights, the U.S. lost a core component of its global power, in the process (as I have written before) eroding the very universal ideals of which it sought to be viewed as a champion. Whatever it entails, transparency of this nature must also be understood as a substantial exercise in self-interest.

Obama again: one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past. In a similar vein, Senator John McCain: we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us. In a democracy such as the USA the ability to exercise power through violence, whether legal (war), illegal (torture) or as yet undecided (drone assassinations), depends heavily on the myth that violence carried out in the name of the demos is okay.

Here is the lasting value of this report: restoring America's faith that it is different, that it is ruled by high ideals, that it's not really the sort of nation that commits the sort of acts that it commits. Because America's committing such acts rests on its ability to remain, in the eyes of its people, the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known (Obama, same speech). Torture and killing by others are policy, are crimes of state, are the product of inferior systems and the action of inferior people. Torture and killing by the home team are thus aberrations, exceptional, and rendered part of history through confession. The loud proclamation of "never again" already begins the process of making "again" possible.

Beyond the case of CIA interrogations, most of the really bad stuff in the world is founded upon a perverted sense of right. Even at the level of petty criminals, people manage to convince themselves that their crimes aren't really crimes (e.g., because they are robbing the rich, or that society "owes" them for past grievances, etc.). At the more macro level, from the U.S. government to the most 'recognized' heinous thugs in the world, from the Lord's Resistance Army to the Third Reich, humans have been able to cause such astonishing levels of harm only because they have managed to successfully construct a sustainable ethical framework that justifies their behaviour to significant numbers of people.

In short, it's people who believe they are right who end up destroying us because they believe that right - that appeal to a just cause, to honor, to patriotism, to redressing past wrongs, to religious glory - then bestows upon them the right and even responsibility to destroy the lives of others. Hugo Slim explores this idea in his excellent book Killing Civilians.

I'm not sure where the above observation leads in terms of establishing a coherent principle of action. Perhaps one can merge the Biblical edict against judging others with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, producing a principle which says that it is impossible to be right enough to judge others sufficiently to justify violent or destructive action against them. It does not mean that we cannot feel right, and/or feel right enough take action - certainly plans to bomb civilians deserve action - it is just that the limit of most action would be the line where we cross into violence against others. We should never be certain enough of either our rightness or of our special nature to justify what has become, essentially, a global litany of forced rectal feeding.