Usually it’s gratifying to see the New York Times devote a rare column to the ongoing outrage of the U.S. resort to torture during the failed “war on terror.”
But not today.
Today’s article, The Legacy of America’s Post-9/11 Turn to Torture, mostly ticked me off:
“Twenty years after the attacks, the United States is still grappling with the consequences of brutal interrogations carried out in the name of national security.”
Not really. Not in this piece at least.
Yes, it made some good points: The focus on the suffering of one kidnappee, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, brutally tortured, held 15 years without trial, is warranted & overdue. Also the recognition it gives to the refusal of one Marine prosecutor, Stuart Couch, to press a case because of Slahi’s horrible mistreatment and coerced confession is worth notice.
But when it comes to the nub of the matter, the heart of torture’s “legacy,” the Times column completely fails.
That nub comes down to one word:
Except for a handful of low-level miscreants at Abu Ghraib, there hasn’t been any.
Instead, the article effectively blames the place, Gitmo, for what was done there, as if a small sliver of land purloined from Cuba was a maleficent actor: Gitmo did it. Close Gitmo and it will be all over.
By the way, I’m all for closing Gitmo: close it now, raze the camps, plant some hardy trees, and add a large visible memorial of apology.
But Gitmo didn’t “do it.” Gitmo was merely a tool, a location. U. S. torture was done by, and at the direction of, people, and it was done in many other places. There are still many places, fenced in, forest or desert-hidden places, where it could be done again.
The article completely avoids mention of the continuing impunity granted those who ordered it, designed it, built the malign network in which Gitmo was but one cog, oversaw it, made sure it happened, and then when the veil was ripped away, defended it, even swore they’d bring it back.
A very few of the torturers, at the lowest level, paid a price. The others up the chain walked. More than that, some grew rich from contracting for the network. One was named, god help us, to the federal bench. Others were promoted. One even became Director of the main agency.
Torture, they tell us, was ended.
But not really; it was only paused. And this pause comes with a precedent: do it, and unless you’re an enlisted grunt, who let pictures be taken, you’ll pay no penalty.
There ought to be a law, some say.
Except there already is: torture is a federal felony. It was then.
Section 2340A of Title 18, United States Code, prohibits torture committed by public officials under color of law against persons within the public official’s custody or control. Torture is defined to include acts specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.
“But there are also plenty of Americans,” the article says, “who have not forgotten the choices made after Sept. 11. The country’s revulsion of torture dates to “the earliest days of the American Republic,” Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a federal judge in Manhattan, wrote in his recent book “Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free.”
“This is not the way a civilized colony, or later the United States as a whole, conducts itself,” he said. “I do think that fundamental legal qua moral approach was what was undercut in the wake of 9/11 by what happened in Guantánamo.”
The judge’s courthouse is a few blocks from ground zero. “What is still seared in my memory is watching people jump out of the windows of the World Trade Center towers because the alternative is being burned to death inside,” he said in an interview. “One can never forget the atrocity of that attack. But it is also exactly when atrocities occur that the rule of law is put to the test.”
But not only then, your honor. Not only when atrocities (such as torture) occur. But also after: when it’s time to bring the perpetrators to justice. To make the law real.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi was released in 2016, after 15 years. He has published a widely-translated book, and is the subject of a current movie, The Mauritanian. He has much PTSD, and lasting physical damage to cope with.
But during those 15 years, and since, til today, from the White House, the Pentagon, Langley and on down, they laughed at the law judge Rakoff cited. Mocked it. Blatantly flouted it. And now, impunity for official torture is an established precedent. Ready and waiting to be used for impunity the next time.
That’s the real “legacy” of U. S. torture. But the article doesn’t “grapple” at all with that completely unfinished business of accountability. Instead, it continues to evade and obscure that work.
It’s enough to ruin your whole day.