Saturday, April 25, 2009

torture and the reality principle

The most famous line to emerge from the Bush administration is likely to be this statement made by an administration official (probably Karl Rove) to Ron Suskind:
The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'
This comes to mind because, as McClatchy reports, one of the main things that we tried to torture out of al Qaeda captives was evidence that they were working closely with Saddam Hussein:
The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist....

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.
Why did we torture? To find what wasn't there. None of our captives had information on upcoming terrorist attacks, if al Qaida had gotten around to planning any. And none of them had information on close links between al Qaida and Saddam's Iraq because there were no such links. Evidence of such links was necessary for the imperial vision that Cheney, Rumsfeld and company were trying to create, so torture was applied to obtain it.

Here is the real danger of torture, the real danger posed by our acquiescence in the Bush administration's unchecked executive power. Everyone who has thought seriously about what totalitarianism means -- and what, by contrast, is minimally necessary for democracy -- has come back to the realtionship of government to the truth. In a totalitarian state, the government defines what is true. As Orwell put it, totalitarianism "demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth." Totalitarian states love torture because through torture they can force people to submit to their own version of reality and say the things that they want to be said.

Because the importance of the "reality principle" is not immediately obvious to anyone who has not lived under a totalitarian regime, Americans have not taken Bush's assault on the truth seriously enough. After all, all politicians engage in word games with the truth. Lawyers quibble about the meaning of the law. Prisoners get roughed up in every penal system, especially those who have committed famously heinous crimes. Most of us, though, accept that there are limits. We can argue about the boundary between murder and manslaughter, but we accept that murder is a real crime. Because this seems so obvious to us, we tend to think that anyone who disputes whether a murder has been committed must have some genuine reason for doing so. But Bush and his cronies feel so such obligation to reality. They will argue anything if they think it serves their purposes. Waterboarding is torture, defined as such by dozens of court rulings in the US and elsewhere. We have executed Japanese interrogators as war criminals for this exact offense. But Bush's people didn't want it to be torture, so they have claimed it isn't.

It matters very much that we insist that they are wrong. Once we let the government change the meanings of words in whatever way suits their purposes, we have lost our freedom. If they can say that waterboarding is not torture, they can say that free speech doesn't include the right to criticize them, that their suspicions are "just cause" for imprisoning you, that you are a "clear danger to others" and so need to be committed to an asylum. All of our laws and rights are just words, and if they mean nothing, we are not free.

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