Fear

The U.S. Will Torture Again—and We’re All to Blame

Have we learned from our great moral failure? Don’t bet on it.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Reliably enough, out came Dick Cheney to trash the Senate torture report and to say of the use of torture: “I’d do it again in a minute.” None of us doubt that he would. But the more interesting and challenging question is: Could he?

More precisely, could a future Cheney, after a future terrorist attack on the U.S. mainland, get away with it? Could a future administration set up the whole fraudulent and immoral apparatus—a Department of Justice defining torture so narrowly that it somehow magically doesn’t include sleep deprivation or rectal hydration or waterboarding, followed by a CIA and military saying “Hey, what’s the big deal? It’s all legal!”? (Even in his press conference Thursday, CIA chief John Brennan acknowledged that it all could happen again: “I defer to the policymakers,” he said, as to what might occur.)

People like me are supposed to say something like: No, we’re better than that. Alas, I say we are not better than that. It could happen again. Easily.

In fact, let’s go further. Cheney is a figure of horror and ridicule these days (although by no means to everyone—to the Fox New audience to which he spoke the above words Wednesday, he’s oracular). But can we honestly say that back in 2002, 2003, 2004, he wasn’t carrying out the people’s will? We get the government we deserve, de Tocqueville said. And in the Bush-Cheney regime, we got exactly that.

There exist four mechanisms in our democracy by which the state can be compelled to live up to what we call, rather farcically in a gruesome week like this one, “our ideals.” There is the will of the people; the resolve of the political class; the courage of the media; and the authority of the courts. With regard to our torture regime, all four failed, and failed completely.

The people were, in theory, against torture. I have on my screen here a study from Reed College (PDF) that asserts that from 2001 to 2009, majorities of public opinion consistently opposed torture, by averages of about 55 to 40 percent. That may be, in the abstract. But were Americans ever so worked up about the practice that they demanded it not be undertaken in their name? Never.

In fact, for most of the Bush era, the opposite was the truth. I remember very clearly the public mood after the 9/11 attacks. There was appropriate anger and shock and sorrow. But it bled into other less honorable manifestations, a paradoxical combination of, on the one hand, a lust for revenge in any form among a certain segment of the populace, and on the other hand a tremulous fear among a different segment that sanctioned anything being done in its name. Too many people reverted to a childlike state, and they wanted a daddy-protector. And no, this wasn’t understandable under the circumstances.

As for the political class, I doubt I need to give you a very hard sell on its failure. It was thoroughgoing and bipartisan. The timorous Democrats, with a few noble exceptions like Robert Byrd, largely bought into the global war on terror. The Republicans, well, you know about them. The foreign-policy establishment of Washington and to some extent New York lined up behind the administration on nearly every important question. The urge among this class is always to swim with the tide: In 2003, when the Council on Foreign Relations was casting about for a new leader, it settled on Richard Haass, who had been in Bush’s State Department. He has said since that he was 60-40 against the war, but one would have been hard pressed to know that then, back when his boss, Colin Powell, was warning us about those weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. On the torture question, this class was outraged when it was easy to be outraged, like when the Abu Ghraib story broke, but the outrage was never sustained.

Among the media, there were to be sure many brave journalists—Jane Mayer, Robin Wright, many others—who broke story after story about torture. We’re in their debt. But their great work was more than balanced out by the equivocation caucus—well, we can’t really be sure it’s torture. And then there was the segment of the media that actively cheered it all on. More broadly, the media as a whole were afraid to break ranks. I have had a number of conversations with prominent media people—in TV and radio, names you’d know—who, by way of trying to defend their lack of zeal and confrontation in those post-9/11 days, tried to explain how many furious emails they got when a report diverged modestly from the accepted line.

And the legal system? Again, there were some courageous judges who tried. A Virginia federal judge named Gerald Bruce Lee ruled in 2009 that four Abu Ghraib detainees could sue CACI, the private military contractor in Iraq. But overall the legal system has done little to say “this was against the law.” Much of the fault for that, of course, lies with Barack Obama, who chose early on not to seek prosecutions of Bush administration officials. And even now, in the wake of this report, what is your level of confidence that anyone will be prosecuted as a result of the release of this report? I thought so.

Failures top to bottom. Now, one would like to say that we as a society have learned the lessons of these failures and would not permit this to happen again. Don’t count on it. If there is another terrorist attack on the U.S. mainland, the odds are strong that we will reenact this grim tragedy from start to finish, if a neoconservative regime happens to be ensconced in the White House. The people would respond with the same fear, which would give license to the same behavior, and the political class and the media and the courts would probably go along.

So yes, it’s a moral horror that Cheney says he’d do it all again. But it’s also all too likely that a future Cheney could do it all again. That’s the far greater moral horror, and the one we don’t want to face, because it implicates us.