Remember That Torture Report?

A heavily redacted Senate Torture Report was released in December. The timing was political – Republican victories in the November election raised the prospect that the Report would not be released after 2014. But was there another political factor in the timing of the release? We know that politicians commonly issue problematic press releases on Friday afternoons to take advantage of the quieter end of the news cycle. In the case of the Torture Report, the pressurized frivolities of the Christmas Holiday and the annual catharsis of the New Year predictably distracted Americans from the details of the report and from their duty for a fundamental moral reckoning. These were not the only distractions.

News of the SONY hack and the absurd controversies that continue to swirl around it quickly refocused media attention and popular discussion from torture to an inane farce that (tortuously) attempts to wring humor from racism, xenophobia, and bodily functions.

Without clear or compelling evidence, the FBI hastily blamed North Korea. The charge was based on some Korean language in the malware and a clear motive: the film portrayed a fictional plot to behead the North Korean leader in a graphic manner.

Despite the fact that a beheading video recently provoked President Obama to start a war in the Middle East, our leader unabashedly defended SONY’s spoof on grounds of free speech. The point is not that the grisly horror of the actual beheadings is comparable to a fictional spoof, but rather that even the fictional beheading of a real person (literally a head of state) is not a laughing matter. What would Obama and the American media say if Russian or Iranian filmmakers released a comedy about the beheading of a serving American head of state? What would happen if you or I released a film about the assassination of a serving American head of state? What would happen if I released a film about my plot to behead you?

Leaving those questions aside, a clear North Korean motive for the hack seemed to be enough to persuade the FBI, the Obama administration, the American media, and the American public.

But North Korea strenuously and consistently denied the charge. As time passed, a growing number of experts publicly doubted that North Korea was the culprit. Along with many technical reasons for their skepticism is the fact that the hackers did not connect their work to North Korea until after the media seized on this angle.

As doubts about North Korean involvement have spread, there have been more recent attempts to pin the blame on Moscow. The malware also contained some Cyrillic symbols and one expert claims to detect subtle Russian-language constructions in English communiqués from the hackers. This move was inevitable given Russia’s role as America’s designated blame donkey. (If we can’t blame Arabs, Iranians, or North Koreans, then the Russian’s must have had a hand.) Still, no one has suggested a Russian motive for the hack.

Yet there is another organization with opportunity, means, and a clear motive. Did the CIA plan the SONY hack to follow release of the torture report and thereby distract attention? Much like the days of September 2001, a catastrophic failure of the American security state has morphed into an excuse for hostility and aggression toward traditional overseas adversaries. Patriotism has been repackaged as an appreciation of middle-school toilet jokes. Our reflexive fears of foreign threats and our consequent deference to the security state have been reaffirmed.

America’s moral self-examination has been postponed yet again. Difficult questions were never asked about 9/11 and America’s decline into a torture state. At the close of yet another year, Americans are shrinking from amorphous fears that are regularly ratcheted upward, and waging perpetual wars, while, for the most part, drifting into poverty, ignorance, and senseless distractions.