I joined fellow whistleblower and former chief Guantanamo prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis on the BBC’s World TV recently to speak out against torture.
Because most “journalism” these days defines objectivity as having people from bizarrely opposite sides of an issue yell at each other until time is up, I found myself “rebutting” a handful of nut jobs whose argument was basically that torture is good, or maybe useful, or vengeful, or whatever, as long as it hurts dirty brown Muslims because, 9/11. Witches deserved it. Also, torture works.
Torture Worked at Salem
Torture does indeed work, if your goal is simply to punish, humiliate or extract false confessions. One example of torture’s very successful use in American history was with the Salem witch trials. Innocent women in 17th century America were brutalized until they admitted to being witches. In one ingenious twist of logic worthy of their post-9/11 successors, the torturers devised a 100 percent effective strategy: hold a suspected witch under water until she either drowns (oops, not a witch, exonerated) or magically floats (confirming she is a witch) and then execute her. One way or another, you’re always correct!
The logic holds for our modern day torturers. We learned than some 26 men held by the United States and tortured, some for years, truly had no connection to terrorism. Everytime they were waterboarded, threatened with death or beaten, they told the truth: they were not terrorists. However, their denials of culpability were taken merely as signs that more torture was needed to get them to confess.
9/11 Left Us with No Choice
One of the other points the troglodytes supporting torture, from the other guests on the BBC show to the Director of the CIA and the President, have brought up is the urgency and seriousness of the post-9/11 environment. They insist torture must be viewed in that light, not from the soft comfort of 2014. America had been attacked, and only through any and all means necessary could we protect her.
Many other times America faced dire circumstances, most far more dangerous to the nation, when government-sponsored torture on a massive scale somehow wasn’t needed to prevail. The American Civil War, and WWII, especially in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, are two examples that come to mind. What made a handful of jihadis more dangerous?
Ticking Time Bomb Scenario
OK, OK, the ticking time bomb scenario. This one pops up as regular as bowel movements. Isn’t torture justified under a situation where a captured terrorist knows information that would stop a bus full of patriotic orphans from being blown up?
Of course, no such scenario has ever existed, and is unlikely ever to exist. For a real 24 TV-like ticking time bomb scenario to exist, here’s what would need to fall into place: the U.S. would have to capture a terrorist in a timely fashion who knew the full, precise details (Monday morning, corner of 5th and Main, Columbus, Ohio, bad guy in white Prius), the U.S. would need to know that the terrorist indeed possessed this information, the U.S. would have to know only torture would elicit the information, the terrorist would need to “break” and give up the full, true information in a timely manner and the information would need to be transmitted to the appropriate law enforcement authorities wherever they were and they would need to act conclusively under whatever time pressures existed, and be successful in their intervention.
Absent even one of those elements, there is no ticking time bomb scenario. It is a false argument for torture, as they all are.
17th Century Morality
But at the end of the day, what troubled me most was not the odd idea that the venerable BBC had stooped to scouring the world to find advocates of torture and given them an audience larger than those they normally addressed from under the rocks they live hidden beneath, or that journalism stoops so low now.
The saddest thing of all is that in what is supposed to be the enlightened 21st century, with so many cries of “never again” echoing in our historical background, we are still forced to defend the notion that a country like the United States should not torture people. We have reverted to a 17th century morality.
Nominated last year, I was just a happy guest this year at the 2013 Ridenhour Prizes.
The Prizes recognize acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. These prizes memorialize the spirit of fearless truth-telling that whistleblower and investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour reflected throughout his extraordinary life and career.
I am very proud to have had the chance to stand by these men, pictured left to right: Matthew Hoh, Colonel Danny Davis and Thomas Drake. All three were previous Ridenhour Prize winners for Truth Telling. If you don’t know them, each name is worth a Google to learn more.
(This was originally published on the Huffington Post, April 24, 2012)
Thank you for sending me copies of your books (they arrived in today’s mail), and thank you even more for writing “with admiration for your truth telling” inside the cover flap of one. I am humbled, because I waited my whole life to realize today I had already met you.
In 1971 I was ten years old, living in a small town in Ohio. The Vietnam War was a part of our town’s life, same as the Fruehauf tractor-trailer plant with its 100% union workforce, the A&P and the Pledge of Allegiance. Nobody in my house went to war, but neighbors had blue and gold stars in their windows and I remember one teacher at school, the one with the longer hair and the mustache, talking about Vietnam. It meant little to me, involved with sports and oncoming puberty, but I remember my mom bringing home from the supermarket a newsprint quickie paperback edition of the Pentagon Papers. She knew of politics and Vietnam maybe even less than I did, but the Papers were all over the news, the Lady Gaga of their day, and it seemed the thing to do to spend the $1.95. My Dad flipped through the book, pronounced it garbage and when I tried to make sense of the names and foreign places it made no impact on me.
I didn’t know then that in the years before my mom bought that paperback what you had done. I didn’t know that the US had been at war in Vietnam since the 1950’s, that it was US duplicity that divided the country into North and South, and that a series of Presidents had customarily lied to the American people about what we were doing in a third world jungle. I did not know that at the time you were working at the RAND corporation, and that a secret history of the Vietnam War, the real story of our involvement, had been commissioned. While I was in fourth grade trying to learn multiplication, you were making photocopies of these then-classified documents. As you read them, you understood that the government had knowledge early on that the war could not be won, and that continuing the war would lead to many times more casualties than was ever admitted publicly. As the New York Times was to write, the documents “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.”
New York Times Stands
A lot of people inside the government had read those same Papers and understood their content, but only you decided that instead of simply going along with the lies, or privately using your new knowledge to fuel self-eating cynicism, you would try to persuade US Senators Fulbright and McGovern to release the papers on the Senate floor. When they did not have the courage, even as they knew the lies continued to kill Americans they represented, you brought the Papers to the New York Times. The Times then echoed with the courage of great journalists and published the Papers, fought off the Nixon Administration (New York Times v. The United States) by calling to the First Amendment and brought the truth about lies to America. That’s when my mom bought a copy of the Papers at the A&P.
You were considered an enemy of the United States because when you encountered something inside of government so egregious, so fundamentally wrong, that you risked your own freedom to make it public. You almost went to jail, fighting off charges under the same draconian Espionage Act that Obama uses today to silence others who stand in your shadow.
Fast Forward to Iraq
In 2009 I volunteered to serve in Iraq for my employer of some 23 years, the Department of State. While I was there I saw such waste in our so-called reconstruction program, such lies put out by two administrations about what we were (not) doing in Iraq, that it seemed to me that the only thing I could do—had to do—was tell people about what I saw. In my years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled only with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid their flaws.
What I saw in Iraq was different. There, the space between what we were doing (the waste), and what we were saying (the endless chant of success) was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not nerveless bureaucrats. It wasn’t Vietnam in scale or impact, but it was again young Americans risking their lives, believing for something greater than themselves, when instead it was just another lie. Another war started and ended on lies, while again our government worked to keep the truth from the people.
I am unsure what I accomplished with my own book, absent losing my job with the State Department for telling a truth that embarrassed them. So be it; most people at State will never understand the choice of conscience over career, the root of most of State’s problems. There are higher goals than obedience.
But Dan, what you accomplished was this. When I faced a crisis of conscience, to tell what I knew because it needed to be told, coming to realize I was risking at the least my job if not jail, I remembered that newsprint copy of the Papers from 1971 you risked the same and more to release. I took my decision in the face of the Obama administration having already charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, but more importantly, I took my decision in the face of your example.
Thank you for the books you sent me Dan, and for the sentiments you expressed toward me inside them. Thank you for your courage so that when I needed it, I had an example to assess myself against other than the limp men and women working now for a Department of State too scared of the truth to rise to claim even a whisper of the word courage for themselves.
On April 25 a number of people will gather in Washington DC for this year’s Ridenhour Prize, which recognizes patriots who choose acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. I am proud to have been nominated. One of this year’s winners is Congressman John Lewis, whose life working for social justice started when he walked alongside Dr. King. Another awardee this year is Lieutenant Colonel Danny Davis, a soldier whose leaked documents on the Afghan War revealed the same rotten lies at its heart that we saw in our previous wars. Daniel Ellsberg was the first person awarded the Ridenhour, his award simply for Courage.
Here’s the official statement:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2012, as Loyalty Day. This Loyalty Day, I call upon all the people of the United States to join in support of this national observance, whether by displaying the flag of the United States or pledging allegiance to the Republic for which it stands.
That is just plain creepy. It is an actual law, 36 USC § 115, which is even creepier.
The history of this holiday adds to the creep factor like a pedophile at a cheerleaders camp. From the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars:
Loyalty Day originally began as “Americanization Day” in 1921 as a counter to the Communists’ May 1 celebration of the Russian Revolution. On May 1, 1930, 10,000 VFW members staged a rally at New York’s Union Square to promote patriotism. Through a resolution adopted in 1949, May 1 evolved into Loyalty Day. Observances began in 1950 on April 28 and climaxed May 1 when more than five million people across the nation held rallies. In New York City, more than 100,000 people rallied for America. In 1958 Congress enacted Public Law 529 proclaiming Loyalty Day a permanent fixture on the nation’s calendar.
So, as our nation rushes headlong into totalitarianism, it is good to know that Loyalty Day exists to protect us all from those filthy disloyal Americans who speak out, blow the whistle, stand up against torture and demand their First Amendment rights.
We loyal Americans will stand quietly to the side, thank you. Now God bless.
Lieutenant Colonel Dan Davis risked his career to answer that question, in a longer report the Pentagon tried to withhold, and a summary piece already on the web.
Rolling Stone has now obtained a full copy of the 84-page unclassified version, which has been making the rounds within the U.S. government, including the White House. Stone says it is one of the most significant documents published by an active-duty officer in the past ten years.
Here is the report’s opening lines:
Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable. This deception has damaged America’s credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan.
Read the full report online now.