The continuing politics of torture

The ex-VP is constructing a narrative around torture that makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

The ex-VP is constructing a narrative around torture that makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

In his latest New York Review of Books article Mark Danner makes the key point: “When it comes to torture, it is not what we did but what we are doing.” Which is not to say that he believes that torture is still occurring but that the politics of torture is still at the heart of US politics and the ongoing construction of the symbolic war on terror:

Torture, as the former vice-president’s words suggest, is a critical issue in the present of our politics—and not only because of ongoing investigations by Senate committees, or because of calls for an independent inquiry by congressional leaders, or for a “truth commission” by a leading Senate Democrat, or because of demands for a criminal investigation by the ACLU and other human rights organizations, and now undertaken in Spain, the United Kingdom, and Poland. For many in the United States, torture still stands as a marker of political commitment—of a willingness to “do anything to protect the American people,” a manly readiness to know when to abstain from “coddling terrorists” and do what needs to be done. Torture’s powerful symbolic role, like many ugly, shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed. But that doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary.

Torture is at the heart of the deadly politics of national security. The former vice-president, as able and ruthless a politician as the country has yet produced, appears convinced of this. For if torture really was a necessary evil in what Mr. Cheney calls the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of “keeping the country safe,” then it follows that its abolition at the hands of the Obama administration will put the country once more at risk. It was Barack Obama, after all, who on his first full day as president issued a series of historic executive orders that closed the “black site” secret prisons and halted the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that had been practiced there, and that provided that the offshore prison at Guantánamo would be closed within a year.

In moving instantly to do these things Obama identified himself as the “anti-torture president” no less than George W. Bush had become the “torture president”—as the former vice-president, a deeply unpopular politician who has seized the role of a kind of dark spokesman for the national id, was quick to point out.

In an interview about the release of the ICRC report on torture, which Danner and the NYRB have made available for the first time, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, whose book Journey to the Dark Side documented many of the stories in the report, makes a similar point to Danner. The Obama administration cannot get away with a neutral position:

It seems that his general style is to try to find consensus rather than to isolate people and confront them. I think that an early tip-off to his thinking was when he described possible accountability as “witch hunts” and said we’re not going to have witch hunts.

And yet I think that they’re going to find it impossible to be where they are. Right now, they’re trying to assert some kind of neutral position about the Bush years. They’ve come out critical, they’ve said “we’re fixing this, it was wrong,” and they have started to fix it — I give them credit for doing a lot of the right things.

But what they’re trying to do is not have to open up the past, as they keep saying, and I don’t think that’s going to work because they’re going to have a choice here. They’re at a fork in the road, where either they’re going to open things up, or they’re going to have to cover things up. There’s not a real neutral position to be there. And that’s what I think they’re beginning to realize.

Both Mayer and Danner make the same point that Cheney’s recent posturing about torture is pragmatic politics setting up a potential blame game if another attack occurs on Obama’s watch. As Danner puts it:

Mr. Cheney’s politics of torture looks, Janus-like, in two directions: back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.

Put forward at a time when Republicans have lost power and popularity—and by the man who is perhaps the least popular figure in American public life—these propositions seem audacious, outrageous, even reckless; yet the political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling. …Cheney’s politics of fear—and the vice-president is unique only in his willingness to enunciate the matter so aggressively—is drawn from the past but built for the future, a possibly post-apocalyptic future, when Americans, gazing at the ruins left by another attack on their country, will wonder what could have been done but wasn’t. It relies on a carefully constructed narrative of what was done during the last half-dozen years, of all the disasters that could have happened but did not, and why they did not, and it makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0rlY8k26aA&w=340&h=285]

Danner points out that there are others in the same administration, with access to the same reports, that dispute Cheney’s view:

We know a great deal about the Bush administration’s policy of torture but we need to know more. We need to know, from an investigation that will study all the evidence, classified at however high a level of secrecy, and that will speak to the nation with a credible bipartisan voice, whether the use of torture really did produce information that, in the words of the former vice-president, was “absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US.” We already have substantial reason to doubt these claims, for example the words of Lawrence Wilkerson, who, as chief of staff to Secretary of State Powell, had access to intelligence of the highest classification:

“It has never come to my attention in any persuasive way—from classified information or otherwise—that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.”

The death of Christian America?

Newsweek explores the empty pews...Photo: Newsweek

Newsweek explores the empty pews...Photo: Newsweek

Amidst the proliferation of religion stories to coincide with Easter, the Newsweek cover story is a fantastic piece that has depth and currency. Written by the magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, it is beautifully researched, engagingly written and strongly argued. It draws out a number of different points of view and possibilities around the theme of what a reported drop in religious affiliation might mean:

Let’s be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian. A third of Americans say they are born again; this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that “these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.” With rising numbers of Hispanic immigrants bolstering the Roman Catholic Church in America, and given the popularity of Pentecostalism, a rapidly growing Christian milieu in the United States and globally, there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious—far more so, for instance, than Europe.

Still, in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a “Christian nation” than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is “losing influence” in American society, while just 19 percent say religion’s influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.

A few teaching points on style:

  • note the way he bookends the long feature with an anecdote from one of his key sources, Albert Mohler;
  • note the way he acknowledges his own religious position but neither his personal voice or faith dominate his argument;
  • note the diversity of primary and secondary sources and how he makes use of academic texts in a very reader friendly way; and
  • note the way he deep backgrounds the American constitutional tradition and various religious movements.

In a web post accompanying the article Meacham makes the point that some readers interpreted the story as an attack on Christianity. This is clearly not the case and is pretty obviously a knee jerk reaction to the coverline (“The decline and fall of Christina America”) by believers inculcated with the view that the press is anti-religious. Meacham notes:

Some have read the piece (or, I suspect, the cover line) as an attack on Christianity, which it is not and which would, in any case, be an act of self-loathing, since I am a Christian, albeit a poor one. Note that we did not say we were discussing the decline and fall of Christianity, or even the decline and fall of Christianity in America. But “Christian America” is something else again. It is the vision of a nation whose public life is governed by explicitly articulated and adopted Christian principles in the hope, I think, that God will bless and protect the country and its people in the spirit of II Chron. 7:14. To see how well that is going from the perspective of the religious right, take a look at the news from Iowa and Vermont. I do not think, as some evangelicals do, that we are entering a “post-Christian” phase, but I do believe we are growing rather more secular than I would have anticipated even five years ago. The cumulative effect of a somewhat declining Christian population and a weakening Christian force in partisan politics is likely, I think, to lead to a more secular politics. Not wholly secular, to be sure, but more secular than we have been accustomed to in our Jesus-Winthrop-Reagan “city on a hill.”