A decade ago, amid early reports of detainee abuse at CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay, defenders of U.S. detention and interrogation operations promoted a flawed distinction between torture and “torture-lite.” They argued that, to our nation’s credit, rather than resorting to brutal and violent maiming and mutilation, we employed less cruel techniques—techniques like sleep deprivation, extended isolation, stress positions, sensory bombardment, forced nudity, freezing temperatures, sexual and cultural humiliation, confinement in coffin-like boxes, and threats of harm to family members. This favorable assessment, however, does not withstand scientific scrutiny; these hands-off psychological methods are at least as devastating and debilitating in their long-term and often permanent effects. Yet the notion of “torture-lite” helped to encourage the public to accept the inhuman treatment of detainees.
Now, following last month’s release of the Senate report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” we are drawn to another deceptive distinction: the difference between “torture tolerance” on the one hand and what might be called “torture tolerance-lite” on the other. To nobody’s surprise, torture tolerance found its go-to spokesperson years ago in Dick Cheney. The former vice-president predictably returned to center stage to defend the CIA’s methods. His strident message has ranged from “I would do it again in a minute” to “It absolutely did work” to “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.” Indeed, Cheney and other Bush Administration officials who instituted the program apparently believe our torturers deserve to be decorated, not indicted.
Torture tolerance-lite has its own equally high-profile advocate: Barack Obama. As he began his first term in January 2009, the President stated, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards” when asked about possible consequences for our war-on-terror purveyors of torture. His opposition to accountability has not softened over the six years since. This past summer, anticipating the Senate report findings, Obama dismissively acknowledged, “We tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values”—and then he cautioned us against being “too sanctimonious” about it. And in December, when some of the gruesome details of CIA torture—including the significant involvement of psychologists as designers and implementers—finally became public, Obama recommended that we not “refight old arguments.”
Cheney and Obama are unlikely allies but they have regrettably linked arms here. In their joint discounting of government-sponsored brutality, Cheney’s torture tolerance and Obama’s torture tolerance-lite represent a formidable front against calls for criminal prosecutions and justice. With such unity, perhaps it is unsurprising that national polls throughout the past decade—from one administration to the next—have consistently shown that many Americans support the use of torture.
To a troubling degree, it seems we have grown comfortable with a worldview that defends and excuses the barbaric treatment of other human beings: we torture because our country is in grave danger; those we torture are monstrous wrongdoers; we torture for the greater good; only torture can keep us safe; and those who criticize our stance on torture cannot be trusted. This perspective flourishes despite compelling evidence that “enhanced interrogation techniques” have been ineffective in producing actionable intelligence and that our use of torture has badly damaged the moral authority of the United States around the world.
Torture, regardless of whether it relies on physical pain or psychological torment, is cruel, immoral, misguided, and illegal. As a profound affront and threat to both human dignity and the rule of law, torture degrades and diminishes not only its direct victims but also the society that tolerates it without accountability. That is why, in the long run, the adverse effects of torture tolerance-lite may be nearly indistinguishable from torture tolerance itself. In a different context, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned that certain choices “give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.” Tragically, by forgoing criminal prosecutions, that’s exactly what the embrace of torture tolerance-lite does today.