Authority crisis roils America: Police abuse, torture and authoritarianism run amok

CIA torture details, in wake of ugly police killings, raise alarms: How much more state abuse can we tolerate?

Published December 10, 2014 4:12PM (EST)

Darren Wilson, Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani             (Reuters/Jason Reed/AP/Damian Dovarganes)
Darren Wilson, Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani (Reuters/Jason Reed/AP/Damian Dovarganes)

There is so much that’s horrifying about what’s now simply called “the torture report,” the redacted summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into years of unforgivable CIA abuse post-9/11. But one thing that recurs disturbingly often is anal rape imagery: examples of “rectal feeding,” of rectal exams that used “excessive force,” and “at least one instance,” according to the report, of threatened sodomy with a broomstick.

Am I the only one who thought about Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was not just threatened but actually sodomized with a broomstick by the New York Police Department’s Justin Volpe in 1997? The torture report’s release, in the wake of grand juries failing to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and right here in New York, where Louima was tortured, reminds us of the danger of unaccountable state power.

Yet an undercurrent of authoritarianism in American culture -- and a particular American deference to authority figures who are supposed to "protect" us – threatens to let it go unchecked.

To be fair, many Americans are horrified by the torture report’s revelations. And many Americans believe police officers should be held accountable when they use excessive force and harm or kill Americans, of any race. But there’s a disturbing impulse evident lately, to excuse abuses of power on the part of those who are charged with protecting us, whether cops or the post-9/11 CIA. I don’t care what we did!former Bush flack Nicolle Wallace shrieked on “Morning Joe” Monday. And she spoke for too many Americans. (Though not for her former boss Sen. John McCain.)

I watched the debate over the torture report unfurl all day Tuesday, online, in print and on television. All the coverage focused on a few questions: whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein is right that torture didn’t work; whether the report might produce blowback by our enemies; whether the CIA is being scapegoated for Bush administration decisions. There was shockingly little emphasis on the fact that torture is illegal and a war crime, banned by the Geneva Conventions, a U.N. Convention against torture ratified under a supportive Ronald Reagan, and by Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code.

So much in the torture report should appall Americans, above and beyond the many details of depravity. CIA officials lied about who they had in custody. They lied about what they were doing. They destroyed evidence. They tortured two of their own informants. At least 20 percent of the people they detained, as examined by investigators, were held wrongfully. They paid $81 million to two psychologists who knew nothing about al-Qaida, terrorism or the war against them. They didn’t fully brief President Bush until April 2006, after 38 of 39 detainees had already been interrogated.

This should be an issue that unites civil libertarians on the left and the right – as should excessive force by police -- but the authoritarian impulse is stronger on the right. Libertarianism also seems overwhelmed by the prevailing resentment of President Obama, and the changing America that he represents. Still, it’s amazing: Even as wingnuts deride Obama as a fascist and a tyrant, they applaud excessive force by police officers and CIA officials.

It’s also amazing that it’s taken two years to get a redacted executive summary of the “torture report” released. Let’s remember that we’re merely talking about sharing information about the Senate’s investigation into torture, not about indicting or punishing anyone. At least grand juries considered whether to indict Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo in the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. There has been no such process regarding CIA torturers.

Which is not to say the grand jury process in Ferguson or Staten Island delivered justice to those men's families. Nor have the families of John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, African-Americans killed by police while holding toy guns, even gotten a fair and clear accounting of how their sons died. Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white men, yet white people's confidence in police fairness, and doubts about cops' racial bias, have never been higher, while African-Americans' is understandably at a record low.

Thankfully Abner Louima’s attackers were punished; Volpe is serving 30 years in prison, and Louima won a settlement of $8.7 million – the largest police brutality settlement in New York history at the time. The Louima rape happened to take place under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has emerged as the chief defender of cops who kill in the last two weeks. Giuliani’s career is an example of how the authoritarian impulse in American politics often prevails.

I don’t know why the worst element in law enforcement – locally and globally – turns to rape when left unchecked. But since rape is about power, it may be the ultimate example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Weirdly, the incorrigible neocon Danielle Pletka made a reference to rape, or at least the botched Rolling Stone story on rape, in the New York Times, when attacking the Senate’s torture report. “It has become the norm,” she complained, “to act based on false reports; to close fraternities because of rapes that may or may not have happened; to release terrorists because it is inconvenient to keep them.”

How strange that Pletka would reference rape in this context. Or maybe not. The right-wing backlash that defends torture and police abuse also agitates to restore a culture that blames rape victims for what happened to them, and excuses all but the most violent sexual assault as boys just being boys. Human progress is marked by the rejection of all such abuses of power; it feels like we’re living in a time when such progress is stalled, temporarily.

By Joan Walsh