The Torture Was the Message

Leading figures in the Bush Administration — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz — fancied themselves to be the new Vulcans. As in Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge, armorer for gods and mortals. In the aftermath of 9/11, they didn’t look to Darth Vader in their journey to “the dark side” — they looked to Ancient Rome. They believed that Rome had prospered because of its willingness to use force with unparalleled ruthlessness. As the “new Rome,” the new hegemon of the globe, America too would prosper if it proved willing to use brutal force.

Call it “shock and awe.” In the process, they sowed the dragon’s teeth of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and indeed throughout the world. In attempting to intimidate the enemies they saw everywhere, they tortured widely as well.

In her book Rome and the Enemy (1990), historian Susan P. Mattern noted that:

Rome’s success, its very safety, ultimately depended less on the force that it could wield, which was not necessarily large or overwhelming, than on the image of the force it could wield and on its apparent willingness to use that force at whatever cost.

The American Vulcans, people like Cheney, concluded the same: they had to be willing to use brutal force at whatever cost. Image was everything. They had to be willing to project an image of ruthlessness, because the language of brutality was the only language “they,” the enemy, could and would understand. It wasn’t necessary to sacrifice democracy to defend democracy, since to the Vulcans, America wasn’t really a democracy anyway. No: America was the new Rome, the new global hegemon, and it had to act like it.

To the Vulcans, torture was not an aberration. It was method. A method of intimidation that sent a message to barbarians about America’s willingness to use whatever force was necessary to defend itself. Whether torture yielded reliable intelligence was beside the point. The torture was the message.

That’s why you’ll hear no apology from Dick Cheney or the other Vulcans. They speak the language of naked power. A fiery power that consumes. And they’re proud of it.

Two millennia ago, in a riposte to Rome’s utter ruthlessness, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote a critique using Calgacus, a Celtic chieftain, as his mouthpiece. In Agricola, Tacitus wrote:

The Romans’ tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission. These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity, so they now ransack the sea. When their enemy is rich, they lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power. Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger. They are unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and the poor. Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call ‘Empire.’ They create a desert and call it ‘Peace.’

This may not be quite the self-image that America’s new Vulcans had in mind, but it is the reality when you set yourself up as acolytes of the god of fire. But fire is an especially capricious and elemental force, impossible to master, raging treacherously as it consumes everything in its path. Beware when you play with fire, for even the Roman Empire burnt itself out.

(With thanks to the reader below who reminded me of the different roles Vulcan and Mars played in Roman mythology.)