Monday, January 12, 2015

Torture? What Torture?

Torture? What Torture?

Americans have a rather baroque view of what constitutes torture.  That is easily seen in the 2 - 1 endorsement of the conduct that went down under the Bush II administration at various CIA black sites during the first two wars Bush and Company ran.  So many fellow Americans are ready to agree with Dick Cheney, and a small segment of the legal community, that all of that was merely enhanced interrogation.  All societies, it seems, define torture with some specificity, based on their own ideas of cultural norms, what the general public thinks is cruel and unusual punishment. And our country’s moderate and modulated response to the early December release of the Senate CIA torture program report bears this out.

When I was a very young man, hardly a teenager, some decades ago I used to look at so-called men’s magazines that some older boys and fathers had left around.  These were not girlie magazines, but men’s magazines, full of manly subjects.  One of the most compelling was the often used spread on “Arab” crime management, the cutting off of hands and sometimes heads for minor infractions, or what I thought of at eleven as minor.  Now that was what I would have classified as torture.

What the Saudis may think of such acts I do not know, though they apparently continue to this day.

No, what Americans think of when they think of torture usually involves chain saws, or sledge hammers, or the like.  Walk though any of the mega-hardware stores of the modern period, as Hollywood producers often do looking for new ways to kill people in movies, and you can gather what constitutes torture to most of the population.

It’s usually entails cutting, smashing, gouging, body parts lost, whatever carnage that  has appeared over the last couple of decades at the local multi-plex.

I have always thought it curious that waterboarding has taken pride of place in the torture sweepstakes that have been roundly condemned of late.  Americans have very conflicted views about water and it has been seldom looked at as outright torture.  True, it has been seen as a vehicle of catastrophe, of peril, but not necessarily as an instrument of torture:  Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, for instance. But that of course, is weather. Various myths about water have taken hold in the American psyche: parents, particularly fathers, throwing children into pools as a means of instruction to either sink or swim.  Sharks in the ocean are scarier than the ocean itself.  Backyard pools were always a luxury to aspire to.  Everyone, or a lot of people, have found themselves at one time or another choking on too much water, either learning how to swim, or because of some other mishap when at play. Water water everywhere.

Former Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press made one odd concession to our country’s most recent form of waterboarding, in order to differentiate it from the WWII Japanese sort, for which perpetrators were hung by the neck till dead, Cheney said that we “elevated” the feet of the waterboarded, so they wouldn’t actually drown.  I had never heard that before, the elevated feet business, and I’ve paid attention over the years to the placating statements that the overly involved have made.

And all the business of slamming people into walls, and other sort of rough treatment.  Americans seem to give that a pass too, as official torture, given that NFL stars are knocking out their wives in casino hotels’ elevators and beating their children with switches, to say nothing of all the non-stars bad treatment of wives and children we all see about us.  Torture?  Almost usual behavior of some alarmingly high percentage of our fellow Americans.

But it is the waterboarding that people keep coming back to.  Somehow water’s properties are too conflicted, so many good, so few bad, for Americans to see water as real torture.  It is something: EIT.  Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.  George Orwell is spinning in his grave. Hanging from ceilings, sleep deprivation, so much of that sounds too familiar to too many people, something they have put up with. Rectal feeding?  Apparently, some folks have enemas for fun.

It does seem that Americans, at least 2 - 1, roughly 70 percent, are ready to give the CIA and the Bush II administration a pass on the torture question, as long as they don’t turn up at their doors someday with chain saws and sledge hammers, or gardening scissors and red hot pokers.

A version of this ran in the South Bend Tribune, January 10, 2015: