Torture And The Myths We Tell Ourselves

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released their report on the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation between 2001 and 2006. The 6,000 page document details the financial windfall and legal window dressing used to create a system of torture purportedly designed to get facts about possible terrorist threats to the United States and her myriad interests. It exposes practices such as rectal feeding, extreme sensory deprivation, the use of rape threats against children and death at the hands of interrogators, all of which were used by the CIA on detainees during the five year period.


None of this information is new per se. We’ve known for over a decade that the United States used torture on detainees, and we’ve seen study after study that suggests it does not yield reliable information. When you subject people to waterboarding or extreme pain from stress positions, they are likely to tell you anything to make the torture stop. Human beings are not reliable sources when they fear for their lives as it turns out. And yet, here we are, ten years on and engaging in a national debate on the possible benefits of torture.


Torture, of course, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As long as there has been warfare there have been wartime atrocities. Man has never fallen short when asked to find horrific and painful things to do to his fellow man, to break his enemy and instill fear. Part of raising an elite army has always been teaching fighters that a real or perceived enemy is somehow separate from humanity in order to lessen the inner turmoil of killing a human being. We tell ourselves they are not like us, and in doing so absolve ourselves of the pain and suffering we cause.


But we live in a modern world, a world where wars are not waged for personal gain. We require justification that transcends such base desires. Fight for freedom, fight for the oppressed, fight to end wanton death and destruction. That’s an illusion we cling to desperately, and one that is thrown into the flames when we read about men being made to stand on broken bones in our name.


Is that why we seek to justify such abhorrent practices? Is it why we allow Dick Cheney to commandeer the bullhorn and remind us again and again and again of the talking points we’ve heard too many times in the past ten years? Is it why we create lines in the sand to differentiate those who deserve to be tortured and those who don’t? Do those lines mean anything when the report tells us that we tortured innocent men being held on vague accusations of possible terrorist links?


When you strip away all the justifications and all the excuses, we’re left with these facts: Two men became millionaires by inventing ways to inflict excruciating psychological and physical pain. The lives of innocent men and their families were shattered in the name of the United States’ fear. No one has been held accountable for breaking international laws, and no one will be held accountable.


We like to believe we have evolved past the barbarism and savagery that we think defined our ancestors’ lives. We need to believe we are better than that, more humane and just. It’s part of our identity myth, and make no mistake—it is a myth. As long as we see value in anguish, or security in the pain of others, or justice in bruises inflicted to a chained man, we have not evolved. We’re just as twisted and broken as we’ve ever been.


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