Tuesday, April 28, 2009

There are no innocent bystanders

Naomi Wolf is only one of many to make that point:

As citizens' outrage over the torture memos heats up, and the US Congress is barraged with calls to appoint a special prosecutor, Americans may be about to commit an egregious miscarriage of justice. Republicans have now accused Democrats in Congress of having "blood on your hands too" in relation to the escalating calls to investigate. I would go further: not only do Congressional Democrats have blood on their hands – but so do we, the American people. And CIA agents may be about to be sacrificed to assuage their – and our – actual and associative guilt.

The suddenly urgent calls by our Congressional Democratic leaders, and even by many of the American people, to prosecute CIA operatives, military men and women and contractors who were certainly involved with, colluded in or turned a blind eye to torture are not only the height of hypocrisy, they are a form of unconscionable scapegoating. The scapegoating is political on the part of Congressional leaders, and psychological on the part of many Americans who are now "shocked" at what was done in their name.

Hello America, were you asleep for the past seven years? The fact that the Bush administration used torture has been the furthest thing from a secret. When the political winds were with the last administration, which framed qualms about torture as being soft on "the war on terror", just about every Congressional Democrat fell right into line to accept it, if not cheer it on. Even Hillary Clinton supported torture – right up through her presidential run. Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the torture in closed-door meetings. When activist groups and citizens called for a special prosecutor, all we heard from Congressional Democrats was how they did not wish to spend the political capital.

President Bush hid the torture in plain sight by championing it. Vice-President Cheney gave such explicit interviews about his role in directing the policy of torture that in legal terms, were there a prosecution, they would amount to a confession. Did the Congress that is now so piously calling for the investigation of rank-and-file agents and military personnel express their horror and outrage then? With a very few exceptions, they did not.

Since 2003 it has been fully documented by rights organisations, and accessible to anyone listening, that direct US policy for prisoners included electrodes on genitals, suffocation, hanging prisoners from bars by the wrists, beatings, concealed murders, sexual assault threats, sexual humiliation and forced nudity, which is considered a sex crime in warfare, international and domestic law. Many voices, from Jane Mayer's to Michael Ratner's to Jameel Jaffer's to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, made similar documented charges. Did our leaders call for investigations? They barely even called for a moment's consideration; tolerating torture – "tough tactics", "enhanced interrogations" in those demonic euphemisms – polled well; supporting it made them look tough in close elections; it was overwhelmingly OK with them.

And may we please look in the mirror, for the sake of our own moral health? How many Americans spoke up when it was chic to thrill to the sadistic soundbite of "take the gloves off"? How many watched 24 without a murmur when the mass consensus was that it was OK – no, patriotic – to waterboard a bit? How many of us (as in civilised societies every­where when a wind of barbarism is set free) actually thrilled to the sadistic (and sometimes sexually sadistic) soundbites that came out of the Bush communications office: the "special sauce", the "belly slap", the phrase "we have our methods"?

Ms. Wolf suggests that the appropriate targets of investigation and prosecution would be the very officials who gave the orders to torture. Merely going after those down near the bottom of the chain of command merely allows us to maintain our dangerous mythology of the few "bad apples" without confronting that it wasn't just the apples, but the entire barrel (including the American Zeitgeist) that were rotten. If one wishes to be serious about preventing organizational violence - which practices like waterboarding and such are in part - one will need to ditch the feel-good narratives and come face to face with our own complicity as a culture an allowing such violence to happen in the first place.

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