Torture and the death of an American myth

Like the Iraq war, the proposed torture legislation destroys yet another traditional American myth.

Jason Stahl

Some time back, the news came out that the CIA was operating prisons across the world in which they were engaging in practices of torture. These included techniques such as Cold Cell (a prisoner stands in a cell which is between 40 and 50 degrees and is repeatedly doused with cold water), Long Time Standing (in which a prisoner stands for up to 48 hours at a time without sleep) and waterboarding (a technique where the prison is made to feel as if he or she is drowning). Soon after this was revealed, many came out in defense of this torture. I remember thinking how odd it was that American politicians, pundits and citizens were now being asked to state their “position on torture.” Who would have thought such a situation would come to pass in the United States?

Not me. I grew up being taught in my history classes that torture was the practice of despotic regimes – not the United States, which was a “civilized Western democracy.” Torture was done by other “rogue nations.” As I went on to college to study history, I learned that this was a myth. So-called “civilized” countries have engaged in torture – from the French in Algeria to the United States in the Philippines and Vietnam to the British throughout the history of their empire – just to name a few examples.

So what is different now? Why, despite knowing the truth behind the myth that the United States “does not torture,” do I feel sadness and anger – among other emotions – at my own nation? Because now, if the current Senate “compromise bill” on torture is passed by both houses and signed into law by President George W. Bush (which seems likely), the United States will be a nation that tortures as a matter of law. The debate will be over and the myth will be fully dead – America will be a nation that legalized torture.

I’m sure you don’t believe me. You heard that a “compromise” was struck between Bush and “maverick Republicans” like John McCain. Don’t believe it. From the beginning, Bush said his “one test” for signing the “compromise” legislation would be that it allows “the program” (i.e. the practices of torture described above) to continue. He signed onto the legislation Thursday precisely because it passed this test. As Bush’s aide Dan Bartlett put it, “We proposed a more direct approach to bringing clarification. This one is more of the scenic route, but it gets us there.” Bartlett was not spinning about the “scenic route” to torture. As legal expert Marty Lederman has written, “The serious problem with the bill … is that it would define ‘cruel treatment’ for purposes of the War Crimes Act in a confusing and inadequate manner that could readily be construed not to cover some or many of the CIA techniques. More to the point, numerous Bush officials’ statements over the past 48 hours indicated that the administration has already construed the definition in exactly that way.”

So, as with the current Iraq war, this proposed law demolishes yet another guiding myth of the American nation. While the Iraq war demolished the myth that the United States does not engage in unprovoked wars, this law firmly demolishes the myth that we do not torture. Both of these were always myths, as both were never wholly true. However, traditional guiding myths can often stop some of the worst actions a nation can take in the present. They can prevent individual members of nations from taking heinous, inhumane actions and they can ultimately lead to the punishment of those who violate these traditions. This is ultimately why they matter and why it matters when they are officially obliterated.

And don’t count on any of the Democrats to rescue yet another dying principle of the country. They declared themselves irrelevant throughout the debate by leaving the “heavy lifting” to the “maverick Republicans.” Now that the “mavericks” have capitulated, the Democrats look ready to follow their lead.

If any of them had an ounce of respect for the traditions and institutions of this nation, they would filibuster this atrocity. But they won’t. Many will vote for it as they voted for the Iraq war. And as with that vote, they will become complicit in the destruction of another American myth and the horrific consequences of that destruction.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]