From the time the U.S. government's torture regime was revealed, people worried that by unleashing that beast we'd inevitably be bringing the torture back home. Most decent people considered torture to be a taboo, something relegated to the ancient past like public flogging and witch burning --- a throwback to medieval practices and the Spanish Inquisition. Certainly since the aftermath World War II, when the various war crimes tribunals which tried people for torture and atrocities committed by both the Nazis and the Japanese, it had been assumed that even in the case of global conflagration and a true existential threat, torture and atrocities were beyond the pale.
Letting that genie out of the bottle, normalizing the practice, seemed to inevitably invite the belief that the practice was not only morally sound as a practice but a moral imperative. How could one say that torture was necessary for terrorism but not, say, for a suspected serial killer or pedophile?
And what happens to a person who becomes a torturer? Does it change them in ways that would affect their behavior once they came home from the prison camps overseas? According one old CIA hand, they had tried torture in the past from time to time, using foreign governments as proxies, and it had a very negative effect not only on the tortured suspects but on those who carried it out:
"If you talk to people who have been tortured, that gives you a pretty good idea not only as to what it does to them, but what it does to the people who do it," he said. "One of my main objections to torture is what it does to the guys who actually inflict the torture. It does bad things.
I have talked to a bunch of people who had been tortured who, when they talked to me, would tell me things they had not told their torturers, and I would ask, 'Why didn't you tell that to the guys who were torturing you?' They said that their torturers got so involved that they didn't even bother to ask questions." Ultimately, he said ... "torture becomes an end unto itself."
Torturing other human beings does something to a person, something dark and deep and ugly. And by allowing it to become part of the fabric of our military training and intelligence gathering we were making some American soldiers and agents into people for whom torture became an end unto itself. We wondered, how many of these people were out there? And what would happen when they came home?
That question remains unanswered. But this series by Spencer Ackerman in the Guardian raises an entirely different one. Perhaps the question isn't whether those who took part in torture will bring their immoral practices back to America but whether America actually took its existing dark practices to those prison camps around the world:
When the Chicago detective Richard Zuley arrived at Guantánamo Bay late in 2002, US military commanders touted him as the hero they had been looking for.
Here was a Navy reserve lieutenant who had spent the last 25 years as a distinguished detective on the mean streets of Chicago, closing case after case – often due to his knack for getting confessions.
But while Zuley’s brutal interrogation techniques – prolonged shackling, family threats, demands on suspects to implicate themselves and others – would get supercharged at Guantánamo for the war on terrorism, a Guardian investigation has uncovered that Zuley used similar tactics for years, behind closed police-station doors, on Chicago’s poor and non-white citizens. Multiple people in prison in Illinois insist they have been wrongly convicted on the basis of coerced confessions extracted by Zuley and his colleagues.
The Guardian examined thousands of court documents from Chicago and interviewed two dozen people with experience at Guantánamo and in the Chicago criminal-justice system. The results of its investigation suggests a continuum between Guantánamo interrogation rooms and Chicago police precincts. Zuley’s detective work, particularly when visited on Chicago’s minority communities, contains a dark foreshadowing of the United States’ post-9/11 descent into torture.
A dark foreshadowing indeed. The Chicago PD has a reputation for police brutality and coerced confessions. Ackerman noted one particularly sadistic case:
An infamous former police commander, Jon Burge, used to administer electric shocks to Chicagoans taken into his station, and hit them over the head with telephone books. On Friday, Burge was released from home monitoring, the conclusion of a four and a half year federal sentence – not for torture, but for perjury.
You may recall that in 2000, the Republican Governor of Illinois declared a moratorium on executions in the state due to the startling fact that more capitol offenders had been exonerated than had been executed. The existence of a group of inmates known as the Death Row 10 whose confessions had been extracted by police torture made it further impossible to sustain support for the practice. But until now, it has not been known that the U.S. exported that torture program to Guantanamo.
This case doesn't prove the point that torture does something "bad" to the people who do it. Perhaps these torturers were always bad. But it does show that the torture is most efficient at extracting false confessions and one of the most professional American career torturers used those methods in Guantanamo. He undoubtedly provided Donald Rumsfeld, who evidently personally signed off on his tactics, plenty of counterproductive "metrics." (Those metrics, also known as false confessions and false trails of information were what they used in lieu of the equally useless method of "counting body bags" to show their alleged progress in Vietnam.)
The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report back made all these points explicitly. But apparently few people cared. In fact, Americans have become much more accepting of torture than they were in the immediate post 9/11 period, which may show that the mere fact that we now commonly debate the issue means it is no longer a societal taboo. Back in 2004, 53 percent of Americans said torture could never be justified. Ten years later, polling showed that 59 percent approved of the practice and believed (despite the report's clear assertion to the contrary) that torture provided useful information.
But at least we no longer have to worry that torturing terrorists suspects will inevitably come back to the U.S. and further degrade our very rusty moral compass by inflicting those same cruel tactics on American citizens. It turns out the ship that compass guided sailed a long time ago. At least some of the torturers learned their trade in the police department of a major American city. America is a torture culture and those of us who naively thought otherwise need to think again. The road back to civilized behavior is lot longer than we thought.
Perhaps Dr. Ben Carson explained it best this past weekend:
Our military needs to know that they’re not going be prosecuted when they come back, because somebody has said, ‘You did something that was politically incorrect. There is no such thing as a politically correct war. We need to grow up, we need to mature. If you’re gonna have rules for war, you should just have a rule that says no war. Other than that, we have to win. Our life depends on it.
No rules, no "political correctness," by any means necessary. That's what a "mature" nation does in the eyes of many of our fellow Americans. If that's the case, a better choice of words would be "dying."