The tragedy of King Richard

>> Saturday, May 16, 2009

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney insists that there are documents that should be released that will demonstrate that torturing prisoners elicited vital information. It's a drum he's been beating regularly the past few weeks. Of course, there are those who would say it doesn't matter. And there are those who have observed that torture has a way of eliciting what the torturer wants to hear, even if it's completely false. But let's assume, for the moment, that torturing detainees in our custody really did result in information that Mr. Cheney knows is valuable--what on Earth might it be?

Joe Conason at Salon has suggested a possible answer, and damned if it doesn't make sense. Too much sense, actually: Mr. Conason suggests that the vital information elicited from the detainees under torture was the "proof" of a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and of a connection between Hussein and the September 11th, 2001 attacks on America. Conason writes:

In one report after another, from journalists, former administration officials and Senate investigators, the same theme continues to emerge: Whenever a prisoner believed to possess any knowledge of al-Qaida’s operations or Iraqi intelligence came into American custody, CIA interrogators felt intense pressure from the Bush White House to produce evidence of an Iraq-Qaida relationship (which contradicted everything that U.S. intelligence and other experts knew about the enmity between Saddam’s Baath Party and Osama bin Laden’s jihadists). Indeed, the futile quest for proof of that connection is the common thread running through the gruesome stories of torture from the Guantánamo detainee camp to Egyptian prisons to the CIA's black sites in Thailand and elsewhere.

The weakest rationales for the war in Iraq were always the ones front-and-center. There's no rational argument you can make in Hussein's favor--he was an awful despot, and those who have staked their support of the Iraq war (e.g. Christopher Hitchens) on the morality of deposing a heinous war criminal and liberating a country have a point, at least in the abstract. Pragmatically, of course, one can wonder about the wisdom of nation-building exercises, or the ability of American forces to engage in such missions, or the ability of as untalented a leader as Mr. George Bush to execute such a mission (one supposes, for instance, that his father--with decades of experience in diplomatic and intelligence circles as well as a respectable military career in his youth--would have been better suited for such a task, and we all know that he chose not to undertake it, which says something in itself); and one can certainly point out that however one goes about rebuilding a nation, if it's even possible, that the manner of the Iraq invasion and occupation serves as an excellent lesson in UR DOIN IT RONG, EPIC FAIL.

But of course that's a bit moot, since that's not how the war was sold: the war in Iraq was sold as a matter of imminent threat, with Saddam Hussein on the verge of selling weapons of mass destruction that subsequently couldn't be found to a putative ally he didn't like. In a democracy, you don't really get points for misleading the public as to the reasons for doing something and then going back and saying, "Well, at least it was morally justified, sort of." It's that whole ends-justifying-the-means business that keeps tripping up so many Bush apologists and war-proponents. Had these folks been the dominant voice at the time--had the Bush Administration said, "Hussein's a really terrible person and we want to get rid of him because everybody will be happier in the long run," one suspects the general response would have been along the lines of, "Well, that's nice in theory, but no thanks, not right now maybe later." Certainly the response wouldn't have been Congress abrogating much of its own authority, or one of the most respected men in America being sent to the U.N. to humiliate himself; had an invasion gone on, perhaps it would have been preceded by a national dialogue, careful planning, and the recruitment of a truly multinational alliance to provide not only immediate military support but long-term financial support and guidance.

But oh well. So much for that.

Mr. Cheney's insistence--and his President's insistence--that there was a link between Hussein and September 11th remained fanatical long after any rational person had stopped giving the thought any credit whatsoever. Indeed, I suspect many of us had ascribed the devotion to that tired-out credo to an insulting political cynicism, a willingness to tell an utterly stupid lie over and over again on the assumption that Americans are so stupid they'll believe anything, especially if they've heard it twice. (And some of us, I think, have been frightened by the possibility that this cynical take on the American intellect isn't a gross underestimation.) But perhaps we--or at least, I--haven't given Mr. Cheney enough credit.

Suppose you are the Vice-President. There is this awful attack on American soil that completely derails the agenda your administration was embarked upon--shrinking government, isolationism, education, deregulation. And it occurs to you, for whatever reason, that this attack was more than just a lucky strike by crazed, stateless jihadists; the brain looks for patterns, seeks meaning, and embraces conspiracies as a result. The 9/11 attacks, you think, can't be a set of proverbial lone gunmen doing the unthinkable--just as so many people will embrace ridiculous global conspiracies to explain the JFK assassination rather than the obvious, because the idea of a twitchy little nutjob with a mail-order rifle getting off a lucky shot on the beautiful, smart, heroic leader of the free world seems wrong (Avalon is destroyed by Mordred with the help of epic magicks, not by some peasant with a sling who basically misses his first two-out-of-three casts1). Surely, then, America's enemies must be behind the attack. But who? Who has ties to the Middle East, a reckless disregard for consequence, has made threats of retaliation? Alright, that's a longer list than it should be, but Iraq's near the top of it, no?

So you tell the CIA to prove it. Find the trail. It has to be there. And when they come back and tell you it's not--damn that wily bastard to hell for covering his tracks so well! But you'll have him, yes you will. So you tell the CIA to go back and find the evidence, because it has to be there. It's like a noise you hear inside the walls of your house, from the plumbing or ducts, but you can't trace it down. It's like the vibration you're feeling through the steering wheel of your car, but it goes away whenever you ask somebody if they can feel that. It's there.

And then one of the detainees admits it, because he'll admit anything. He'd admit to the Sharon Tate murders, to borrow a line from Jesse Ventura. He'll admit to being a CIA plant, like the victims of Tuol Sleng did. He'd admit to being a witch and signing his name in the Devil's book if you asked him to, just to make it stop. Because that's what people do under torture.

So now you're armed with the confession. And who's going to tell you otherwise?

And if this is the scenario that played out--and who knows if it is? But if this is the scenario, then we have another argument against torture, don't we, or another dimension of one of the same arguments? We often talk about what torture did to the alleged witches at Salem without paying as much attention to what it did to the torturers--having found their witches, they descended into paranoia. Their deepest, darkest fears had been revealed as truths, the witches confirmed it themselves. It's possible that Dick Cheney's world is a terrible, mad world, where the myths, rumors and lies he's lived with for nearly a decade are now bedrock truths. The torturer and the victim become locked in a cruel symbiosis, the broken victim believing the lie he told and the broken torturer believing the "proof" he's found--and it came so hard, took so long to come to, but isn't that in and of itself part of the proof?

Perhaps Cheney's crusade of the past several months--finally leaving his seclusion to appear seemingly everywhere--isn't cynical politicking or an attempt to rehabilitate his or his President's legacy, but a sincere, delusional effort to save the world. Somehow, I'm reminded of the legendary CIA counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton, who became so obsessed with the finely-threaded web he'd wrought, he inevitably became snarled in it himself; speculations become facts, lies become truths, the shadows you see approaching are your own, coming to meet you headlong.

One could feel sorry for him.


1Many have tried to claim that Oswald's accuracy was too uncanny for him to have fired the lethal shot, or, some have (absurdly) claimed, any shots. Leaving aside the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald's record in the Marines suggests that he was quite a good shot when he wanted to be and a mediocre shot when he didn't care (this pattern of effort and laziness being typical in all of Oswald's endeavors, including his defection and his marriage), Vincent Bugliosi and others have pointed out that Oswald's first two shots didn't hit what he was aiming at: his first shot missed the motorcade completely, and his second shot hit Kennedy in the upper back and passed through his body--which sounds like a hit, until you realize that Oswald was almost certainly aiming for the President's head. "Close," as they say, "only counts in horseshoes." In assassinations, not so much--just ask Claus von Stauffenberg.


vince Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 1:02:00 AM EDT  

When I was in college, a friend of mine and I coined a phrase (or independently discovered it) for this type of behavior: never let the facts sway you in the face of a higher truth.

What we see with Cheney and others of his ilk is the disaster that occurs when you make up your mind about what the truth is, then go on a hunt for proof. Because you know it's the truth, no amount of negative evidence can convince you otherwise. A lack of evidence simply means that it's well hidden, or that people aren't doing their jobs, or that the reason a prisoner hasn't given you the information you know they have to confirm what you believe is that you haven't tortured them enough.

Janiece Murphy Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 10:44:00 AM EDT  

Vince, I agree. Such a demonstrable lack of skepticism is most disturbing in people of power, IMO.

Eric, I actually do believe that Dick believes his own hype, and that he's sincere in believing that the Bush administration's shenanigans actually "kept the country safe."

In my mind, that makes him and the rest of the insane clown posse more dangerous, because (as Vince noted), evidence won't change their minds.

While I respected Dick when he was the SecDef, he's spent the last 8 years scaring the crap out of me.

Jim Wright Monday, May 18, 2009 at 11:36:00 AM EDT  

You know, I just don't have anything to add.

Excellent post, Eric.

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