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Torture as sacrifice (not the good kind)

February 23, 2010

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility has recommended (full report) that Jay Bybee and John Yoo be disciplined for authorizing torture. They won’t be though, because a Justice Department higher-up released a memo concurrent with the OPR report clearing Yoo and Bybee of any wrongdoing. It will be a long, long time before we come to grips with torture. This goes beyond just punishing the guilty, but it starts there.

Going back over some of the pieces Mark Danner wrote about torture during the Bush years, I was struck by this analysis of the political logic behind it:

…if “taking the gloves off” was a critical part of the “great success story” that has “kept the country safe,” then those who put the gloves on—Democrats who, in the wake of the Watergate scandal during the mid-1970s, passed laws that, among other things, limited the president’s freedom to order, with “deniability,” the CIA to operate outside the law—must have left the country vulnerable. And if by passing those restrictive laws three decades ago Democrats had left the country defenseless before the September 11 terrorists, then putting the gloves back on, as President Barack Obama on assuming office immediately began to do, risks leaving the country vulnerable once more.

Thus another successful attack, if it comes, can be laid firmly at the door of the Obama administration and its Democratic, “legalistic” policies.

Torture is demonstrably ineffective as technique either of interrogation or of intimidation, but once you put it on the table, it changes the whole political narrative. If you torture and there are no successful terrorist attacks, great, you’re heroes. If you torture and there are successful terrorist attacks, well, it’s not your fault, you did everything you could. In fact, you gave a fuller measure of devotion because you sacrificed your moral dignity, you did unspeakable things, all to keep Americans safe.

Of course, if you don’t torture and there are no attacks, you just got lucky. And if, heaven forbid, there are attacks, then, well, we all know why, don’t we?

Terror, the very idea, brings out fear, and fear brings out the atavistic in us. There’s something tribal or religious in the logic of torture. Not just that it’s barbaric and brutal and stupid, but that on some level it’s about sacrifice. The movements of al Qaeda can seem to us just as mysterious and inscutable and fearsome as the movements of heavenly bodies seemed to Aztecs or Druids. They sought to control these movements through the sacrifice of innocents. That these are terrible acts is part of the point–the idea is that they wouldn’t be so effective if they weren’t. Something similar may be true, on some level, of our state-sponsored torture. Part of the political point is that it’s terrible. We think, atavistically, that there is a web of sympathetic magic in which atrocities are connected to atrocities.

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