Friday, October 17, 2008

Torturing Democracy (Washington Media Associates, National Security Archive, PBS, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other show I watched yesterday morning was Torturing Democracy, a PBS documentary by Sherry Jones which for some quirky reason KPBS actually ran ahead of most of the PBS network (it was scheduled to air in New York October 16 but it was shown here October 10), a grim hour and a half that’s mostly a typical PBS talking-heads fest but contains some grim dramatizations of interrogations at Guantánamo (faked with actors, based on the surviving logs of the actual interrogations, because the real videos were destroyed by the CIA) and an overall tack that savored the irony that the techniques being used by U.S. interrogators came originally from the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training given to U.S. servicemembers starting in the 1950’s to keep them from breaking under enemy torture (it was inspired by the so-called “brainwashing” of U.S. prisoners held by the North Koreans during the Korean War). Colin Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage (you remember, the person who after all was said and done turned out to be the one who really outed Valerie Plame as a CIA agent), said he even recognized the techniques as ones he’d been subjected to by U.S. interrogators during practice sessions in his own SERE training.

I was surprised Thomas Frank didn’t mention this in his new book The Wrecking Crew (probably because he wasn’t concerned with foreign policy except as just another arena for corporations with well-connected lobbyists to profit off the U.S. taxpayer in a Right-wing government) but it seems to me that the Right’s obsession with torture reflects what Frank called the bullying nature of the radical Right: their idea that it isn’t enough to defeat their political enemies, but to “utterly destroy” them; their love of out-and-out terrorists like former Angola “freedom fighter” Jonas Savimbi (one of the best parts of The Wrecking Crew is Frank’s telling comparison of the Right’s idolatry of Savimbi with the American Left’s similarly misguided adulation for Huey Newton 15 years before); even the prominence of figures like Rush Limbaugh, who looks like a schoolyard bully who (like Harry Langdon) grew to manhood becoming larger but not achieving the definition of facial or body features that usually distinguishes adults from children. I couldn’t help but think of the debate tacked on to the end of the movie, with former liberal Alan Dershowitz desperately trying to explain how his idea for requiring “torture warrants” in case a captured terrorist has information that might lead to the so-called “ticking time bomb” which, if not defused in time, will obliterate a major U.S. city would actually reinforce the rule of law instead of utterly destroying it, without thinking of Bill O’Reilly (another one of those out-and-out thugs the Right so admires) saying that once you’d conceded that torture was acceptable in the “ticking time bomb” scenario, you’d conceded that it was acceptable, period, and the only remaining question was where do you draw the line.

Jennifer Harbury — who took up the subject after her husband was kidnapped, tortured and eventually murdered by the Latin American government his movement was rebelling against — gave the most convincing refutation I’ve heard to the “ticking time bomb” scenario, pointing out that any terrorist group sending an operative out to do such an important attack would first give him or her the well-known counterintelligence training to prevent them from “cracking” under torture — which includes withstanding as long as you can and then flooding your torturers with such a convincing blizzard of information and misinformation they won’t be able to sort out the truth from the lies until after the big bomb goes off. Ever Dershowitz’s claim that you shouldn’t let someone in this scenario off the hook until they physically lead you to the bomb is meaningless; any halfway competent terrorist would plant more than one bomb and be prepared, if necessary, to lead his or her torturers to a blind bomb instead of the real one, so while they’re energetically disarming the blind “bomb,” the real one goes off on schedule.