I have written often about how the Republicans are becoming what they railed against for decades: totalitarians. Unsurprisingly I suppose, it turns out that what they really hated about Soviet communism was the economics. The 50 years of ranting about personal liberty and anti-authoritarian government seems to have been mere political rhetoric. Now that they are in power themselves they have adopted certain Soviet values quite seamlessly.
Here's a former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, writing in this Sunday's Washington Post:
This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.
Apart from sheer frustration and other adrenaline-related emotions, investigators and detectives in hot pursuit have enormous temptation to use force to break the will of their prey because they believe that, metaphorically speaking, they have a "ticking bomb" case on their hands. But, much as a good hunter trains his hounds to bring the game to him rather than eating it, a good ruler has to restrain his henchmen from devouring the prey lest he be left empty-handed. Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin's notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD against itself; he ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria's predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.
So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to "improve intelligence-gathering capability" by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders? I have no answer to these questions, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some "cruel, inhumane or degrading" (CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already.
I wrote some time back about the ramifications for the torturers in this regime. I quoted liberally from this great article article by Jason Vest in the National Journal:
"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 -- echoing Gerber's comments -- "torture becomes an end unto itself."
According to a 30-year CIA veteran currently working for the agency on contract, there is, in fact, some precedent showing that the "gloves-off" approach works -- but it was hotly debated at the time by those who knew about it, and shouldn't be emulated today. "I have been privy to some of what's going on now, but when I saw the Post story, I said to myself, 'The agency deserves every bad thing that's going to happen to it if it is doing this again,'" he said. "In the early 1980s, we did something like this in Lebanon -- technically, the facilities were run by our Christian Maronite allies, but they were really ours, and we had personnel doing the interrogations," he said. "I don't know how much violence was used -- it was really more putting people in underground rooms with a bare bulb for a long time, and for a certain kind of privileged person not used to that, that and some slapping around can be effective.
"But here's the important thing: When orders were given for that operation to stand down, some of the people involved wouldn't. Disciplinary action was taken, but it brought us back to an argument in the agency that's never been settled, one that crops up and goes away -- do you fight the enemy in the gutter, the same way, or maintain some kind of moral high ground?
This is an important thing for us to think about. It's not just a matter of abstract morality. It's a practical question of what happens to societies when they let go. It's hard to imagine how gay marriage or women's rights could even come close to the kind of weird, inhumane behavior that is set free when you go this deeply into sanctioned authoritarian sadism. I wrote in that post, called Genie In A Bottle:
To some extent civilization is nothing more than leashing the beast within. When you go to the dark side, no matter what the motives, you run a terrible risk of destroying yourself in the process. I worry about the men and women who are engaging in this torture regime. This is dangerous to their psyches. But this is true on a larger sociological scale as well. For many, many moons, torture has been a simple taboo --- you didn't question its immorality any more than you would question the immorality of pedophilia. You know that it's wrong on a visceral, gut level. Now we are debating it as if there really is a question as to whether it's immoral --- and, more shockingly, whether it's a positive good. Our country is now openly discussing the efficacy of torture as a method for extracting information.
When Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" he couldn't ever have dreamed that we would in a few short decades be at a place where torture is no longer considered a taboo. It certainly makes all of his concerns about changes to the nuclear family (and oral sex) seem trivial by comparison. We are now a society that on some official levels has decided that torture is no longer a deviant, unspeakable behavior, but rather a useful tool. It's not hidden. People publicly discuss whether torture is really torture if it features less than "pain equavalent to organ failure." People no longer instinctively recoil at the word --- it has become a launching pad for vigorous debate about whether people are deserving of certain universal human rights. It spirals down from there.
People and societies don't just wake up one morning to find they no longer recognize themselves. It's a process. And we are in the process in this country of "defining deviancy down" in ways I never thought possible. We are legitimizing torture and indefinite detention --- saying that we will only do this to the people who really deserve it. One cannot help but wonder what "really deserves it" will mean in the years to come as we fight our endless war against terror.
Sure, right now it's just a bunch of foreigners and I guess we don't feel foreigners are entitled to basic human rights. They must not be human --- or at least not as human as "we" are. In fact, it not even "we." Right wingers make millions of dollars writing books about how liberals are godless, death-loving, traitors within. Many people who read those books probably believe these liberals are only one step away from being sub-human too ---- they are, after all, godless traitors.
But as the soviet experience shows, anyone can be defined as such sub-humans and at some point it usually comes around to catch even the people who wrote the original tales of godless, death-loving traitors within. I don't know why --- maybe it's a kill the messenger thing.
I would almost guarantee that if we continue down this path there will someday be a fine, loyal conservative who, for reasons of petty insider warfare or political expediency finds himself in a position like this at the hands of his former comrades:
In 1971, while in Lefortovo prison in Moscow (the central KGB interrogation jail), I went on a hunger strike demanding a defense lawyer of my choice (the KGB wanted its trusted lawyer to be assigned instead). The moment was most inconvenient for my captors because my case was due in court, and they had no time to spare. So, to break me down, they started force-feeding me in a very unusual manner -- through my nostrils. About a dozen guards led me from my cell to the medical unit. There they straitjacketed me, tied me to a bed, and sat on my legs so that I would not jerk. The others held my shoulders and my head while a doctor was pushing the feeding tube into my nostril.
The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at first; I wheezed like a drowning man -- my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor also seemed ready to burst into tears, but she kept shoving the pipe farther and farther down. Only when it reached my stomach could I resume breathing, carefully. Then she poured some slop through a funnel into the pipe that would choke me if it came back up. They held me down for another half-hour so that the liquid was absorbed by my stomach and could not be vomited back, and then began to pull the pipe out bit by bit. . . . Grrrr. There had just been time for everything to start healing during the night when they came back in the morning and did it all over again, for 10 days, when the guards could stand it no longer. As it happened, it was a Sunday and no bosses were around. They surrounded the doctor: "Hey, listen, let him drink it straight from the bowl, let him sip it. It'll be quicker for you, too, you silly old fool." The doctor was in tears: "Do you think I want to go to jail because of you lot? No, I can't do that. . . . " And so they stood over my body, cursing each other, with bloody bubbles coming out of my nose. On the 12th day, the authorities surrendered; they had run out of time. I had gotten my lawyer, but neither the doctor nor those guards could ever look me in the eye again.
Perhaps nobody cares that that this very thing is being done every day to hunger strikers in Guantanamo. But do people honestly think it can't happen to them? Once we unleash this beast it won't only be terrorists or muslims who will be in danger. In one way or another, we all will be.