The United States is addicted to torture. Not only does this savage addiction run through its history like an overheated electric current, but it has become intensified as part of a broader national psychosis of fear, war and violence. A post 9/11 obsession with security and revenge has buttressed a militarized culture in which violence becomes a first principle, an essential need, whether in the guise of a national sport, mode of entertainment or celebrated ideal.
Don’t miss a beat
Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.
Foreign and domestic violence now mediate everyday relations and the United States’ connection to the larger world. As such, terror, fear, war and torture, become normalized, and the work of dehumanization takes its toll on the US public as more and more people not only become numb to the horror of torture but begin to live in a state of moral stupor, a coma that relegates morality to the dustbin of history. How else to explain recent polls indicating that 58 percent of the US public believe that torture under certain circumstances can be justified, and that 59 percent think that the CIA’s brutal torture methods produced crucial information that helped prevent future attacks?
There is more at stake here than manufactured ignorance and an unconscionable flight from the truth. There is also a dangerous escape from justice, morality and the most basic principles central to a democratic society. The celebration of brutality, spectacles of violence and the affirmation of torture suggests that in a market-driven society with its unchecked individualism, sheer Darwinism and refusal to think about social costs or, for that matter, any notion of the public good, the addiction to cruelty, violence and torture becomes less difficult and almost too easy. In the age of disposability and despicable gaps in wealth, income and power, modern terror becomes normalized and points to the onslaught of a mode of totalitarianism that is more than an ephemeral moment in history. Violence is no longer marginal to American life; it is the foundation that now drives it. As Lawrence Wittner recently observed:
When it comes to violence and preparations for violence, the United States is, indeed, No. 1. In 2013, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. government accounted for 37 percent of world military expenditures, putting it far ahead of all other nations. (The two closest competitors, China and Russia, accounted for 11 percent and 5 percent respectively.) From 2004 to 2013, the United States was also the No. 1 weapons exporter in the world. Moreover, given the U.S. government’s almost continuous series of wars and acts of military intervention since 1941, it seems likely that it surpasses all rivals when it comes to international violence.
With the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s use of torture, it becomes clear that in the aftermath of the loathsome terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States entered into a new and barbarous stage in its history, one in which acts of violence and moral depravity were not only embraced but celebrated. (1) Certainly, this is not to suggest that the United States had not engaged in criminal and lawless acts historically or committed acts of brutality that would rightly be labeled acts of torture.
That much about our history is clear and includes not only the support and participation in acts of indiscriminate violence and torture practiced through and with the right-wing Latin American dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil in the 1970s but also through the willful murder and torture of civilians in Vietnam, Iraq, and later at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan. The United States is no stranger to torture, nor is it free of complicity in aiding other countries notorious for their abuses of human rights. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman reminded us by taking us as far back as 1979 that of the “35 countries using torture on an administrative basis in the late 1970s, 26 were clients of the United States.” (2)
Officially sanctioned torture was never discussed as a legitimate concern; but, as indicated by a few well-documented accounts, it seems to be as American as apple pie.
In fact, the United States has a long record of inflicting torture on others, both at home and abroad, although it has never admitted to such acts. Instead, the official response has been to deny this history or do everything to hide such monstrous acts from public view through government censorship, appealing to the state secrecy principle or deploying a language that buried narratives of extraordinary cruelty in harmless sounding euphemisms. For example, the benign sounding CIA “Phoenix Program” in South Vietnam resulted in the deaths of over 21,000 Vietnamese. (3) As Carl Boggs argues, the acts of US barbarism in Vietnam appeared both unrestrained and never ending, with routinized brutality such as throwing people out of planes labeled as “flying lessons” or “half a helicopter ride,” (4) while tying a field telephone wire around a man’s testicles and ringing it up was a practice called “the Bell Telephone Hour.” (5) Officially sanctioned torture was never discussed as a legitimate concern; but, as indicated by a few well-documented accounts, it seems to be as American as apple pie. (6)
Torture for the United States is not merely a foreign export; it is also part of a long history of domestic terrorism as was evident in the attempts on the part of the FBI, working under a secret program called COINTELPRO, designed to assassinate those considered domestic and foreign enemies. (7) COINTELPRO was about more than spying; it was a legally sanctioned machinery of violence and assassination. (8)
In one of the most notorious cases, the FBI worked with the Chicago Police Department to set up the conditions for the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two members of the Black Panther Party. Noam Chomsky has called COINTELPRO, which went on from the 1950s to the 1970s, when it was stopped, “the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government,” and said it “compares with Wilson’s Red Scare.” (9) What characterized these programs of foreign and domestic terrorism was that they were all shrouded in secrecy and allegedly were conducted in the name of democratic rights.
Torture also has a longstanding presence domestically, particularly as part of the brutalized practices that have shaped US chattel slavery through to its most recent “peculiar institution,” the rapidly expanding prison-industrial complex. (10) The racial disparities in US prisons and the criminal justice system register the profound injustice of racial discrimination as well as a sordid expression of racist violence. As the novelist Ishmael Reed contends, this is a prison system “that is rotten to the core . . . where torture and rape are regular occurrences and where in some states the conditions are worse than at Gitmo. California prison hospitals are so bad that they have been declared unconstitutional and a form of torture.” (11)
After 9/11, the United States slipped into a moral coma as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney worked tirelessly to ensure that the United States would not be constrained by international prohibitions against cruel and inhumane treatment.
One of the more recently publicized cases of prison torture involved the arrest of a former Chicago police commander, Jon Burge. He was charged with routinely torturing as many as 200 prisoners, mostly African-Americans, during police interrogations in the 1970s and 1980s, “in order to force them to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit.” (12) One report claims that many of these men were beaten with telephone books and that “cattle prods were used to administer electric shocks to victims’ genitals. They were suffocated, beaten and burned, and had guns forced into their mouths. They faced mock executions with shotguns. . . . One tactic used was known as ‘the Vietnam treatment,’ presumably started by Burge, a Vietnam veteran.” (13) The filmmaker Deborah Davis has documented a number of incidents in the 1990s that amount to the unequivocal torture of prisoners and has argued that many of the sadistic practices she witnessed taking place in the US prison system were simply exported to Abu Ghraib.
After 9/11, the United States slipped into a moral coma as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney worked tirelessly to ensure that the United States would not be constrained by international prohibitions against cruel and inhumane treatment. They furthered that project not only by making torture, as Mark Danner argues, “a marker of political commitment” but also by constructing a vast secret and illegal apparatus of violence in which, under the cover of national security, alleged “terrorists” could be kidnapped, made to disappear into secret CIA “black sites,” become ghost detainees removed from any vestige of legality, or be secretly abducted and sent to other countries to be tortured. As Jane Mayer puts it,
the lawyers also authorized other previously illegal practices, including the secret capture and indefinite detention of suspects without charges. Simply by designating the suspects “enemy combatants,” the President could suspend the ancient writ of habeas corpus that guarantees a person the right to challenge his imprisonment in front of a fair and independent authority. Once in U.S. custody, the President’s lawyers said, these suspects could be held incommunicado, hidden from their families and international monitors such as the Red Cross, and subjected to unending abuse, so long as it didn’t meet the lawyer’s own definition of torture. And they could be held for the duration of the war against terrorism, a struggle in which victory had never been clearly defined. (14)
The maiming and breaking of bodies and the forms of unimaginable pain inflicted by the Bush administration on so-called enemy combatants was no longer seen in violation of either international human rights or a constitutional commitment to democratic ideals. The war on terror had now reduced governance in the United States to a legalized apparatus of terror that mimicked the very violence it was meant to combat. In the aftermath of 9/11, under the leadership of Bush and his close neoconservative band of merry criminal advisers, justice took a leave of absence and the “gloves came off.” As Mark Danner states, “the United States transformed itself from a country that, officially at least, condemned torture to a country that practiced it.” (15)
But it did more. Under the Bush-Cheney reign of power, torture was embraced in unprecedented ways through a no-holds-barred approach to the war on terror that suggested the administration’s need to exhibit a kind of ethical and psychic hardening – a hyper-masculine, emotional callousness that expressed itself in a warped militaristic mindset fueled by a high testosterone quotient. State secrecy and war crimes now became the only tributes paid to democracy. The latter is particularly evident in Cheney’s morally irresponsible if not depraved response to the Senate report in which he stated, “I think that what needed to be done was done. I think we were perfectly justified in doing it and I’d do it again in a minute.” (16)
The interrogations were considered so inhumane and cruel by some CIA officers that they threatened to transfer to other departments if the brutal interrogations continued.
Cheney went so far on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to deny that waterboarding and related interrogation tactics were torture. In Cheney’s dark world, there are no mistakes as long as the ends justify the means. “Asked again whether he was satisfied with a program that erroneously locked up detainees, he replied, ‘I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.'” (17) This is the barbarous discourse of willful denial reminiscent of statements provided by other war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Pol Pot who also denied that their actions were a violation of human rights, barbaric, and sanctioned human suffering. Hopefully, Cheney’s admission that he sanctioned and engineered the CIA to torture people will be repeated again in a court of law in which he is charged as a war criminal.
As Frank Rich once argued and the Senate Intelligence Committee report confirms, “[T]orture was a premeditated policy approved at our government’s highest levels . . . psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain; and . . . in the assessment of reliable sources like the FBI director Robert Mueller, it did not help disrupt any terrorist attacks.” (18) When the torture memos of 2002 and 2005 were eventually made public by the Obama administration, clearly implicating the Bush-Cheney regime in torture, they revealed that the United States had been turned into a globalized torture state. (19) Conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan went so far as to claim that “If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos.” (20)
The memos, written by government lawyers John Yoo, Steven Bradbury and Jay Bybee, allowed the CIA under the Bush administration to torture al-Qaeda detainees held at Guantánamo and other secret detention centers around the world. They also offered detailed instructions on how to implement 10 techniques prohibited in the Army Field Manual, including facial slaps, “use of a plastic neck collar to slam suspects into a specially-built wall,” (21) sleep deprivation, cramped confinement in small boxes, use of insects in confined boxes, stress positions and waterboarding. All of this and more are now documented in the Senate report. In fact, the report claims that current disclosures about the practice of torture used by the CIA were more brutal and less effective than previously reported.
Waterboarding, which has been condemned by democracies all over the world, consists of the individual being “bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual’s feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner [and] produces the perception of ‘suffocation and incipient panic.'” (22) The highly detailed, amoral nature in which these abuses were first defined and endorsed by lawyers from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) was not only chilling but also reminiscent of the harsh and ethically deprived instrumentalism used by those technicians of death in criminal states such as Nazi Germany. Andy Worthington suggests that there is more than a hint of brutalization and dehumanization in the language used by the OLC’s principal deputy assistant attorney general, Steven G. Bradbury, who wrote a detailed memo recommending:
“nudity, dietary manipulation and sleep deprivation” – now revealed explicitly as not just keeping a prisoner awake, but hanging him, naked except for a diaper, by a chain attached to shackles around his wrists – [as,] essentially, techniques that produce insignificant and transient discomfort. We are, for example, breezily told that caloric intake “will always be set at or above 1,000 kcal/day,” and are encouraged to compare this enforced starvation with “several commercial weight-loss programs in the United States which involve similar or even greater reductions in calorific intake” . . . and when it comes to waterboarding, Bradbury clinically confirms that it can be used 12 times a day over five days in a period of a month – a total of 60 times for a technique that is so horrible that one application is supposed to have even the most hardened terrorist literally gagging to tell all. (23)
The New York Times claimed in an editorial “that to read the . . . four memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush’s Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity.” (24) The editorial was particularly incensed over a passage written by Jay Bybee, who was an assistant attorney general in the Bush administration at the time. As The Times then pointed out, Bybee “wrote admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water was poured over his face. He praised the Central Intelligence Agency for having doctors ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary.” (25)
Bybee’s memo is particularly disturbing, even repugnant, in its disregard for human rights, human dignity and democratic values, not only describing how the mechanics of waterboarding should be implemented but also providing detailed analysis for introducing insects into confined boxes that held suspected terrorist prisoners. In light of mounting criticism, Bybee both defended his support of such severe interrogation tactics and further argued that “the memorandums represented ‘a good faith analysis of the law’ that properly defined the thin line between harsh treatment and torture.” (26) Indeed, it seems that Bybee should have looked carefully at the following judgment pronounced by the US court in Nuremberg to the lawyers and jurists who rewrote the law for the Nazi regime: “You destroyed law and justice in Germany utilizing the empty forms of the legal process.” (27)
As brutal as the revelations revealed in the memos proved to be, the Senate report on torture goes even further in documenting the millions of dollars spent on black sites, the amateurish qualifications of people to even conduct interrogations, the complicity of unqualified psychologists who milked the government for $81 million to develop torture techniques, and the endless lies produced by both the CIA and the Bush-Cheney administration regarding everything from the use of secret prisons established all over the world to the false claims that the use of torture was responsible for providing information that led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden by members of the Navy SEALs. (28) The report also stated that far more people were waterboarded than was first disclosed and that the sessions amounted to extreme acts of cruelty. Some members of the CIA choked up over the cruel nature of the interrogations and sent memos to Langley calling their legality into question, but were told by higher officials to continue with the practice. In fact, the interrogations were considered so inhumane and cruel by some CIA officers that they threatened to transfer to other departments if the brutal interrogations continued.
The rhetorical gymnastics used by the torture squad are designed to make the US public believe that if you refer to torture by some seemingly innocuous name then the pain and suffering it causes will suddenly disappear.
The United States was condemned all over the world for its support of torture and that condemnation, hopefully, will take place once again in light of the report. Fortunately, President Obama, when he came to office, outlawed the most egregious acts practiced by the professional torturers of the Bush-Cheney regime. Yet undercurrents of authoritarianism die hard in the circles of unaccountable power. The Senate report makes clear that the CIA engaged in lies, distortions and horrendous violations of human rights, including waterboarding and other sordid practices. The report also reveals that the CIA used monstrous methods such as forced rectal feeding, dragging hooded detainees “up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched” and threatening to kill or rape family members of the prisoners.
In spite of the appalling evidence presented by the report, members of the old Bush crowd, including former Vice President Cheney, former CIA directors, George J. Tenet and Michael V. Hayden, and an endless number of prominent Republican Party politicians, are still defending the United States’ use of torture or, as they euphemistically contend, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The psychopathic undercurrent and the authoritarian impulse of such reactions finds its most instructive expression in former Bush communications chief Nicolle Wallace who while appearing on the “Morning Joe” show screeched in response to the revelations of the Senate report, “I don’t care what we did.”
As Elias Isquith, a writer for Salon, contends, as “grotesque as that was, though, the really scary part was [the implication that] . . . waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and sexual assault is part of what makes America ‘great.'” (29) Wallace’s comments are more than morally repugnant. Wallace embodies the stance of so many other war criminals who were either indifferent to the massive suffering and deaths they caused or actually took pride in their actions. They are the bureaucrats whose thoughtlessness and moral depravity Hannah Arendt identified as the rear guard of totalitarianism.
Illegal legalities, moral depravity and mad violence are now wrapped in the vocabulary of Orwellian doublethink. For instance, the rhetorical gymnastics used by the torture squad are designed to make the US public believe that if you refer to torture by some seemingly innocuous name then the pain and suffering it causes will suddenly disappear. (30) The latter represents not just the discourse of magical thinking but a refusal to recognize that “If cruelty is the worst thing that humans do to each other, torture [is] the most extreme expression of human cruelty.” (31) These apostles of torture are politicians who thrive in some sick zone of political and social abandonment, and who unapologetically further acts of barbarism, fear, willful lies and moral depravity.
They are the new totalitarians who hate democracy, embrace a punishing state and believe that politics is mostly an extension of war. They are the thoughtless gangsters reminiscent of the monsters who made fascism possible at another time in history. For them, torture is an instrument of fear, one sordid strategy and element in a war on terror that attempts to expand governmental power and put into play a vast (il)legal and repressive apparatus that expands the field of violence and the technologies, knowledge and institutions central to fighting the all-encompassing war on terror. Americans now live under a government in which the doctrine of permanent warfare is legitimated through a state of emergency deeply rooted in a mass psychology of violence and culture of cruelty that are essential to transforming a government of laws into a regime of lawlessness.
The Senate report has brought one of the darkest sides of humanity to light and it has sparked a predictable outrage and public condemnation.
Once the authoritarian side of political governance takes hold, it is hard to eradicate. Power is addictive, especially when it is reckless and offers personal rewards from those who have capital, benefit from human misery and are more than willing to reward politicians who follow the corporate script. Witness the support by a number of Republicans who still support the practice of torture and deny the legitimacy of the Senate report. Ignoring that torture is an element of power that is built on what can be rightly termed a willed amorality, they attack the Senate report not for its content but because they believe its release will anger the alleged enemies of the United States, as if that hasn’t already been done through a range of savage military practices or diplomatic acts. Or they argue that the Senate report is simply an attempt to embarrass the Bush-Cheney administration.
Civility has not been the strong point of a party that is overtly racist, hates immigrants, shuts down the government and caters to every whim of the financial elite. Moreover, we don’t alienate our enemies; we create them by threatening to bomb them, encircling them with nuclear weapons, demonizing Muslims, torturing them and killing them through indiscriminate drone strikes that mostly kill civilians. Principles are not being defended in these arguments, only the kind of raw, naked power that has come to mark authoritarian regimes. It gets worse. The defenders of the globalized torture state are not simply confused or morally damaged; they are wedded to a finance state and the corporate machinery of social, cultural and political violence that will provide them with lucrative jobs once they finish the bidding of defense contractors and other elements of the finance and warfare state.
To his credit, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, broke with the moral dinosaurs in his party and, in defending the release of the Senate report, insisted that the CIA’s use of torture during the Bush-Cheney years “stained our national honor, did much harm, and little practical good.” Most of his colleagues disagree and are now arguing that in spite of the evidence, torture produced actionable intelligence and helped to save lives, a claim the Senate report strongly negates. Once again, empirical utility trumps the levers of justice and the principles of human rights as moral considerations give way to a kind of ghastly death-embracing dance with a debased instrumental rationality.
Not only has the United States lost its moral compass, but it has degenerated into a state of political darkness reminiscent of older dictatorships that maimed human bodies and inflicted unspeakable acts of violence on the innocent, while embracing a mad war-like utility and pragmatism in order to remove themselves from any sense of justice, compassion and reason. This is the formative culture not simply of a society that is ethically lost, but one that produces a society that willingly becomes complicitous with the savage ethos and beliefs of an updated totalitarianism. The Senate report has brought one of the darkest sides of humanity to light and it has sparked a predictable outrage and public condemnation. Thus far, little has been said about either the conditions that made this journey into the dark side possible, or what moral, political and educational absences had to occur in the collective psyche of both the US public and government that not only sanctioned torture but allowed it to happen. What made it so easy for the barbarians not only to implement acts of torture but to openly defend such practices as a sanctioned government policy?
With the release of the report, the supine US press finally has to acknowledge that the United States had joined with other totalitarian countries of the past in committing atrocities completely alien to any functioning democracy. The United States is no longer even a weak democracy. The lie is now more visible than ever. Nonetheless, the usual crowd of politicians, pundits and mainstream media not only have little to say about the history of torture committed by the United States at home and abroad, but also about their own silence, if not complicity, in this dark side of US history. The possibility of a politically and morally charged critique has turned into a cowardly and evasive debate around questions such as: Does torture prevent terrorist acts from taking place? Is waterboarding really an act of torture? Is torture justified in the face of extremist attacks on the United States? Is the CIA being scapegoated for actions promoted by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd? And so it goes. These are the wrong questions and reveal the toxic complicity the mainstream press has had all along with such anti-democratic practices. War crimes should not be debated; they should be condemned without qualification.
For a society to treat torture as a reasonable practice worthy of informed debate reveals a cancer deeply embedded in the American social and political psyche.
In an incredible act of bad faith, those responsible for state-sanctioned acts of torture are now interviewed by the mainstream media and presented, if not portrayed, as reasonable men with honorable intentions. Rather than being condemned as agents of a totalitarian state and as war criminals who should be prosecuted, those who both gave the orders to torture and those who carried out such inhuman practices are treated as one side of a debate team, anxious to get the real story out in order to provide the other side of the narrative. There is more than a hint of moral depravity here; there is also what I have called elsewhere the violence of organized forgetting.
Torture is not about the cowardly appeal to balance. The only reasonable approach any democracy can take toward torture is both to condemn it and to prosecute those responsible for it as well as those who practice it. In this case, that would include the highest elected officials such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, members of the CIA, the subcontractors who tortured and all those others who engaged in such despicable acts such as hanging people upside down, raping them rectally, subjecting them to freezing temperatures while chained to a floor, and in some cases killing them.
For a society to treat torture as a reasonable practice worthy of informed debate reveals a cancer deeply embedded in the American social and political psyche, partly produced by the carcinogenic culture of the mainstream media, the spectacle of violence and unchecked militarism of US society, and those commanding cultural apparatuses that believe that the only value that matters is rooted in acts of commerce and the accumulation of capital at any cost. Ideas matter; education matters; morality matters and justice matters in a democracy. People who hold power in the United States should be held accountable for the actions they take, especially when they violate all decent standards of human rights.
Maybe it is time to treat the Senate torture report as just one register of a series of crimes being committed under the regime of a savage neoliberalism. After all, an economic policy that views ethics as a liability, disdains the public good and enshrines self-interest as the highest of virtues provides a petri dish not just for state-sanctioned torture abroad but also for a range of lawless and cruel policies at home. Maybe it’s time to connect the dots between the government’s use of waterboarding and a history that includes the killing of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther, by the Chicago police, the illegal existence of COINTELPRO, the savage brutality of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, (32) the rise of the post-Orwellian surveillance state, the militarization of the local police, the transformation of underserved US cities into war zones, the creation of Obama’s kill list, the use of drones that indiscriminately execute people, and the recent killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of militarized police forces that now act with impunity. (33)
Is it not reasonable to argue that the lawlessness that creates the torture state and provides immunity for killer cops also provides protection for those in the government and CIA who put into play the tentacles of the globalized torture state? Is it too far-fetched to argue that Eric Garner’s utterance, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” is a reminder of the many foreign nationals under the control of the torture state who might have uttered the same words as they were being tortured? Connect these dots and there is more at play here than retreat into a facile high moralism that condemns torture as a “stain on our values.” Instead, what becomes evident is that torture has become symptomatic of something much larger than an errant plunge into immorality and lawlessness, and begins to reveal a more systemic rush into what Robert Jay Lifton has described as “a death-saturated age” (34) in which matters of violence, survival and trauma inescapably bear down on daily experience while pushing the United States into the dark recesses of a new authoritarianism. The mad and naked horror of torture has now become normalized rather than thought to be unimaginable, just as radical evil fails to provoke moral outrage and degenerates into the fog of everyday banality. The Senate report reveals only one moment in an endless upsurge of lawlessness that has come to characterize the United States’ long, slow plunge into totalitarianism. Americans now inhabit a society where the delete button holds sway and the ethical imagination withers. And what is being erased is not only any vestige of a sense of commitment, but public and historical memory and the foundations of any viable notion of justice, equality and accountability. That is the story that needs to be told.
There is another story to be told about another kind of torture, one that is more capacious and seemingly more abstract but just as deadly in its destruction of human life, justice and democracy. This is a mode of torture that resembles the “mind virus” mentioned in the Senate report, one that induces fear and paralysis, and produces the toxic formative culture that characterizes the reign of neoliberalism. Isolation, privatization and the cold logic of instrumental rationality have created a new kind of social formation and social order in which it becomes difficult to form communal bonds, deep connections, a sense of intimacy and long-term commitments. Neoliberalism has created a society of monsters for whom pain and suffering are viewed as entertainment or deserving of scorn, warfare is a permanent state of existence, torture becomes a matter of expediency, and militarism is celebrated as the most powerful mediator of human relationships.
Under the reign of neoliberalism, politics has taken an exit from ethics and thus the issue of social costs is divorced from any form of intervention in the world. These are the ideological metrics of political zombies. The key word here is atomization and it is the curse of both neoliberal societies and democracy itself. A radical democracy demands a notion of educated hope capable of energizing a generation of young people and others who connect the torture state to the violence and criminality of an economic system that celebrates its own depravities. It demands a social movement unwilling to abide by technological fixes or cheap reforms. It demands a new politics for which the word revolution means going to the root of the problem and addressing it non-violently with dignity, civic courage and the refusal to accept a future that mimics the present. Torture is not just a matter of policy; it is an addiction, a deadening mindset, a point of identification, a form of moral paralysis, a war crime, an element of the spectacle of violence, and it must be challenged in all of its dreadful registers.
This is a revised and updated version of an article previously published in CounterPunch.
1. The report can be found here: https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/study2014/sscistudy1.pdf.
2. Cited in Edward S. Herman, “Folks Out There Have a ‘Distaste of Western Civilization and Cultural Values,'” Center for Research on Globalization (September 15, 2001). Online: https://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/HER109A.html.
4. Carl Boggs supplies an excellent commentary on the historical amnesia in the US media surrounding the legacy of torture promoted by the United States. See Carl Boggs, “Torture: An American Legacy,” CounterPunch.org (June 17, 2009). Online: https://www.counterpunch.org/boggs06172009.html.
6. There are many valuable sources that document this history. Some exemplary texts include: A.J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors: The Truth About US Police Operations in Latin America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979); Gordon Thomas, Journey Into Madness: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse (New York: Bantam, 1989); Danner, Torture and Truth; Jennifer K. Harbury, Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of US Involvement in Torture (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005); Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006); and Rejali, Torture and Democracy. See also Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008); and Phillipe Sands, Torture Team (London: Penguin, 2009). On the torture of children, see Michael Haas, George W. Bush, War Criminal?: The Bush Administration’s Liability for 269 War Crimes (Westport: Praeger, 2009). Also, see Henry A. Giroux, Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Boulder: Paradigm, 2010).
7. Amy Goodman, “From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out after 43 Years of Silence (Part 2),” Democracy Now! (January 8, 2014). Online:
8. For an excellent source, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (Boston: South End Press, 2001). Also see The People’s History of the CIA. Online: https://www.thepeopleshistory.net/2013/07/cointelpro-fbis-war-on-us-citizens.html.
9. Chomsky quoted in Amy Goodman, “From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out after 43 Years of Silence (Part 2).” Online: https://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/1/8/from_cointelpro_to_snowden_the_fbi.
10. See, for example, Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005); and Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
11. Ishmael Reed, “How Henry Louis Gates Got Ordained as the Nation’s ‘Leading Black Intellectual,'” Black Agenda Report (July 27, 2009). Online: https://www.blackagendareport.com/?q=content/how-henry-louis-gates-got-ordained-nations-leading-black-intellectual.
12. Pepe Lozano, “Chicago Torture Probe Draws Worldwide Attention,” Political Affairs Magazine (July 6, 2006). Online: https://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/view/3770/1/196/. See also Susan Saulny, “Ex-Officer Linked to Brutality Is Arrested,” The New York Times (October 22, 2008). Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/us/22chicago.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.
16. Michel Chossudovsky, “The Senate CIA Torture Report. Dick Cheney: “The Report is Full of Crap,” Global Research (December 12, 2014). Online: https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-senate-cia-torture-report-dick-cheney-the-report-is-full-of-crap-highlights-executive-summary/5419604.
17. Scott Shane, “Backing C.I.A. Tactics, Cheney Ramps Up Criticism of Senate Torture Report,” The New York Times (December 14, 2014). Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/15/us/politics/cheney-senate-report-on-torture.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0.
19. The torture memos can be found at the American Civil Liberties Union website. Online: https://www.aclu.org/safefree/general/olc_memos.html.
20. Andrew Sullivan, “The Bigger Picture,” The Daily Dish (April 17, 2009). Online: https://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/04/the-bigger-picture.html.
21. Ewen MacAskill, “Obama Releases Bush Torture Memos: Insects, Sleep Deprivation and Waterboarding among Approved Techniques by the Bush Administration,” The Guardian (April 16, 2009). Online: https://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/16/torture-memos-bush-administration.
23. Andy Worthington, “Five Terrible Truths About the CIA Torture Memos,” Future of Freedom Foundation (April 22, 2009). Online: https://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/04/22-6.
28. Mark Mazzetti, “Panel Faults C.I.A. Over Brutality and Deceit in Terrorism Interrogations,” The New York Times (December 9, 2014). Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/10/world/senate-intelligence-committee-cia-torture-report.html.
29. Elias Isquith, “‘I don’t care what we did’: What Nicolle Wallace’s rant reveals about America’s torture problem,” Salon (December 9, 2012). Online: https://www.salon.com/2014/12/09/i_dont_care_what_we_did_what_nicolle_wallaces_rant_reveals_about_americas_torture_problem/.
30. See the repudiations of the right-wing arguments by Rebecca Gordon, “American Torture – Past, Present, and . . . Future? Beyond the Senate Torture Report,” TomDispatch.com (December 14, 2014). Online: https://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175934/tomgram%3A_rebecca_gordon%2C_the_torture_wars/#more.
33. See, for one example of this type of analysis, Chauncey DeVega, “The Culture of Cruelty is International: From Lynchings to Eric Garner and the CIA Torture Report,” We Are Respectable Negroes (December 10, 2014). Online: https://www.chaunceydevega.com/2014/12/the-culture-of-cruelty-is-international.html.