Dick Cheney's dark victory: Torture and the demise of American democracy

Can we quit pretending torture is some huge aberration? It fits into a larger pattern of America's imperial decay

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 13, 2014 5:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Brennan Linsley)
(AP/Brennan Linsley)

If 9/11 was a test of America’s national character, we failed it. As distant as this possibility seems now, Americans of all creeds, colors and political affiliations felt united for a few weeks after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Yes, that soon gave way to jingoism, to strip-mall attacks on presumed Muslims and to the invasion of Afghanistan, which even a cursory, Cliffs Notes history of the Near East will tell you is the place where empires go to die.

But bear with me for a moment here. For any New Yorker who lived through that time, those weeks of trauma and communal mourning remain a key event in one’s personal relationship to the city. I can remember the mounds of white dust inside the storefronts near Ground Zero. I can remember when every Urdu-speaking cab driver and Cantonese-speaking shopkeeper sported an American flag. I can remember the NYPD bagpipe choir marching through the mists of Broadway early one morning, in memory of their fallen brothers. Those images and many more, like especially lucid dreams, will be with me until I die.

If the attacks themselves seemed like a latter-day Pearl Harbor, a call to unified national purpose, it soon became apparent that there was no purpose around which we could unite. The “war on terror” had no clear enemy, no clear goals and no conceivable end point. There was no Berlin to capture, no Wehrmacht troops who could surrender and go home to lead peaceful lives. Although the war may be endless, a great victory has already been won: the victory over democracy by the “imperial executive” and the forces of the “deep state,” a new form of soft totalitarianism more cleverly disguised than the older and more obvious ones. A democratic government is supposed to operate with the consent of the governed. When the governed are conditioned by fear, bathed in paranoid propaganda and offered only one choice – trust us to keep you safe, or face the wrath of a world that hates you – consent becomes a matter of instinct, or pathological compulsion.

The years that followed 9/11 have been closer to a latter-day Vietnam than to World War II, although the widespread social discord of the Vietnam era has played out less visibly, this time around, in the submerged arena of national psychology or the national soul. These years have revealed us as a nation of weakness and fear rather than one of strength and fortitude. You know those oft-parodied signs from the Battle of Britain, the ones that say “Keep Calm and Carry On”? Well, the Brits pretty much did that in 1940, while undergoing a sustained terror-bombing campaign that killed at least 40,000 civilians within four months. What would our version be? Cower in Terror and Keep on Buying Stuff? Rinse Daily in Misinformation and Denial?

We are a nation whose constitutional commitment to high-flown Enlightenment ideals is undermined by a vein of mendacity that too often makes the whole enterprise feel like an elaborate self-delusion. We have long been such a nation, maybe from the beginning. By day, Thomas Jefferson wrote passionate and glorious prose about the rights of man; by night, he pursued his manly privilege in the slave quarters. While the contemporary Democratic Party still tries to trace its lineage back to Jefferson’s rhetoric and philosophy, his descendant in another direction is torture godfather Dick Cheney. While the onetime telephone company lineman and Wyoming town drunk may not have Jefferson’s way with words or his classical education, he has resolved the Jeffersonian contradiction and overcome the Jeffersonian hypocrisy. He’s like Darth Vader, revealing the true nature of Jefferson’s Anakin Skywalker. Cheney has never pretended to believe in anything except power, and is untroubled by the fact that the “America” his methods are “keeping safe” bears no relationship to the one in the schoolbooks.

We got a peek under the curtain at the consequences of that national mendacity this week, with the release of a summary version of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture of terror-war prisoners. It’s a peek under the curtain at another curtain, we might say, since this was not the real committee report but a truncated and redacted highlights reel, whose release was opposed by the Obama White House, the Republican congressional leadership and of course the CIA itself. We should also remember that this report only addresses what the CIA did under its own auspices, and not what happened to detainees who were “rendered” to secret police in their home countries or other useful regimes.

I never suspected I would feel grateful to Sen. Dianne Feinstein for anything; she’s an inveterate political opportunist and triangulator, and I can remember when, as mayor of San Francisco, she unleashed riot cops on protesters at the 1984 Democratic convention. (Those “punk rock protests” were a distant precursor, perhaps, to the street-level direct action of the 21st century, including what’s happening right now.) But it’s fair to say that Feinstein has always believed in the rule of law (however capaciously understood), and she has evidently been troubled all along by the total disregard for all standards of law, morality and ethics evidenced by America’s torture regime. With her career in public life nearing its end, Feinstein has chiseled an important crack in the cone of silence surrounding the torture issue, which virtually everyone else in and around the government – including all the leading 2016 presidential contenders – would rather not talk about.

There isn’t much in the Senate committee’s summary that qualifies as entirely new information, at least for those who’ve been following the currents of investigative reporting over the years since 9/11. But it makes disturbing, not to say nauseating reading: Detainees forced to stand on broken legs, or deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, or shackled to an overhead bar 22 hours a day. Some commentaries on the summary report have tried to make the “rectal feeding and rehydration” to which several detainees were subjected sound like a medical procedure, when it’s clear in context that it was used as a form of abuse and humiliation. If the entire concept sounds as if it had been borrowed from the "Human Centipede" series of horror films, you're on the right track. One unnamed interviewee quoted in the report, presumably a CIA interrogator, noted that having food or liquids forcibly introduced into one’s rectum through a tube helped “clear a person’s head.”

At least 26 of the 119 prisoners who were held and tortured in secret CIA prisons should never have been detained in the first place, according to the report, and numerous others were later determined to pose no threat of violence or terrorist activity. But the question of whether the “right people” were tortured, or whether what was done to them produced any useful information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden or the campaign against al-Qaida, strikes me as a bit of a philosophical dead end. I don’t mean that those questions have no value or should not be answered, and I understand why many people feel it is crucial to make the case that torture is not an effective or reliable way to extract information from prisoners. But what draws my attention more vividly is the corruption that spread throughout the American system from these relatively isolated acts conducted in secret.

Actually, that may be stating the central problem backwards or upside down. Torture is a symptom of America's cultural and political disease, not the disease itself, and the fact that we turned to torture so rapidly and willingly after a single spectacular terrorist attack is evidence of a generalized infection. When Darth Cheney opened his robes, in that infamous “Meet the Press” appearance five days after the 9/11 attacks, and invited us to join him on “the dark side,” we went willingly, even gratefully. It’s not as if Cheney dissembled or tried to mislead anybody; say what you will about the guy, lying isn’t really part of his M.O. “We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world,” he said. “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion ... That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."

We can claim now that we didn’t know what Cheney meant by “without any discussion” or “any means at our disposal,” but not to put too fine a point on it, that’s bullshit. Sure, there were a handful of civil libertarians and lefty journalists who sounded the alarm, but most of us just nodded knowingly: It was a new world with new rules, and it came as a great relief to ditch the old-fashioned, unattainable ideal of American exceptionalism – the notion that we were special because we represented something new and revolutionary in human history. The new version of American exceptionalism is not based on any such delusions. Cheney set us free from the legacy of daylight Thomas Jefferson, who saw that the chattel slavery that made him rich was a curse that might never be expunged; free from the legacy of Lincoln at Gettysburg, or King on the National Mall. Screw government of the people, by the people and for the people. What a pain in the ass! If we’re exceptional now, it's in an obvious and brutal way we can all get our heads around, because we’ve got the biggest guns and the most stuff. (That won't last, of course.)

In that light, I also think it’s a mistake to depict the relatively contained torture regime of the Bush-Cheney administration as some kind of bizarre aberration that violated the norms of our post-9/11 national conduct. It’s almost the opposite: Our torture policy distilled all the self-destructive and counterproductive policies of the “war on terror” into one unbearable image, a human body subjected to sadistic extremes of pain and abuse for undisclosed reasons or no reason at all, without even the pretense of due process or any recognition of his human rights. That goes along with a costly and disastrous invasion of a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11, and a successor president who has moved on from the threadbare legal arguments used to classify torture as non-torture to the breathtaking position that he holds the right to order the push-button execution of anyone in the world.

In his series of articles on Dick Cheney and his legacy published in the New York Review of Books last winter, journalist and U.C. Berkeley professor Mark Danner observes that war architects like Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld appear blissfully unaware of a fact obvious to everyone else: Their Iraq invasion, meant to forge a Pax Americana in the Middle East and cow “rogue nations” into submission, has had exactly the opposite effect. It has exposed American military might as a paper tiger, possessed of the magical power to create more enemies in every country it touches, and has encouraged the rise of a new adversary, more sophisticated and culture-savvy than al-Qaida ever was. It has made us look both weak and evil.

Torture apologists fall into the same epistemological error -- and the same existential nihilism, you might say -- when they announce that they don’t care how many eggs get broken as long as we are kept safe. (Then there’s the wimpier, “moderate” Obama administration version, which is every bit as offensive: Without quite endorsing what did or did not happen, we’re going to agree never to think about it again.) First of all, we’re almost certainly less safe. More important than that, the criminal acts meant to keep us safe have stripped us bare before the whole world as a lawless and decadent empire that doesn’t look as if it’s worth saving.

In order to save democracy, the torturers had to destroy it. Somewhere in Nietzsche's discussion of "decadence," an important concept in his philosophy, he defines it as a quality that leads people or societies to seek their own deterioration and destruction. (Nietzsche was certainly no fan of democracy, but he also noted that decadent societies were characterized by severe social and economic inequality and a lack of moral and intellectual leadership.) I don't suggest that Dick Cheney and his Fox News acolytes harbor a conscious death-wish; they lack the imagination and insight for that. But their nightmarish fantasies all point toward that outcome. It's as good an explanation of America’s insane response to 9/11 as any. What kind of society produces physicians who will supervise waterboarding and “rectal feeding,” or psychologists who spin the supervision of a secret torture program into an $80 million government contract? What ideal of America is being preserved by such methods, and will it bear their mark forever?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir