The poisoned orchard of torture

There is a pervasive instutionalised culture of dehumanisation in the US that promotes the use of to

Torture is embedded as normal and acceptable practice in political, ideological, cultural and institutional systems, writes Celermajer [Getty Images]

CIA torture in the post-9/11 environment was far from a matter of some isolated incidents. On the contrary, it was widespread and endemic, as the Senate Intelligence Committee (SIC) report makes clear.

Indeed, if we go, as we must, beyond the CIA and look at the full gamut of torture that took place as part of the so-called war on terror – by military personnel (including private security agents) and as part of the programme of extraordinary rendition – we know that torture was even more widespread and systematic than the SIC report demonstrates. Remember, the famous Abu Ghraib torture photos concerned the military and not the CIA.

Even as SIC Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein insists it’s a message to the world that the US condemns torture and is willing to own up to its mistakes, and as President Barack Obama says that this behaviour “is not us”, a more sober analysis would conclude that torture is the US, or at least the institutions that act in its name.

This does not mean that most US citizens support torture. Researchers at Reed College have carefully demonstrated the falsity of claiming, as some commentators do, that US citizens are fine with torture.

It rather means that torture came to be embedded as normal and acceptable practice in political, ideological, cultural and institutional systems that supported and permitted it, authorised and legitimated it. Since the 1960s and 1970s, mounting social science research has shown that torture does not occur because of depraved people, but because of pathological situations – or as one social scientist put it, poisoned orchards not bad apples.

A culture of torture

In the cases of torture that have been documented by the SIC report, we can clearly discern the presence of the very situational factors that this literature identifies as conducive to the spread of a systematic culture of torture.

First, CIA agents were operating in closed environments where there was virtually no oversight, no accountability and no sanctions for violations. The report documents several cases where complaints did go up to headquarters (HQ) but the decision was made not to investigate or take punitive action.

Even when a report of Gul Rahman’s death by hypothermia at a black site, likely in Afghanistan, went up to HQ, the response was that the ultimate goal was to extract any and all operational information. As the director put it in relation to another complaint: “The scale tips decisively in favour of accepting mistakes that over-connect the dots rather than under-connect them.”

The Listening Post – Covering the CIA torture report

More insidiously, the implicit message given to operatives by the political and intelligence leadership was that torture was condoned, accepted and even encouraged.

The starkest example of this is Dick Cheney’s famous “take the gloves off” statement. The upper echelons of the Bush administration conveyed an unambiguous message that the world had changed and ordinary legal and moral rules no longer applied (at least not to the enemy).

Establishing impunity

The linguistic euphemisms that turned torture into enhanced interrogation and the legal gymnastics that turned a violation condemned by international law with no exceptions into a legally permissible act and turned law itself into executive decision, sent a very clear message – go ahead and torture; that is what we want. Moreover, nothing will happen to you.

Another factor was key – the creation of a context where individual agency and responsibility are obscured so individuals can easily absolve themselves or justify their actions.

This allowed the individual men and women who committed acts of torture to justify their actions as “just following orders” (despite the fact that this has not been a legal defence since Nuremberg) or “acting in the national interest”. The diffusion of responsibility allowed them to lose themselves in a crowd – “everyone else was doing it”.

The environment of fear, hatred and Islamophobia that flourished after 9/11 effectively dehumanised the people who came into CIA custody. Beliefs such as; “They don’t have feelings like we do,” and “They are not open to reason so you have to beat them,” legitimate and normalise torturing people who have become less than human.

Pervasive dehumanisation

It’s worth connecting the dots between the dehumanisation we saw in the “war on terror” and the more banal but pervasive dehumanisation that takes place in the US every day.

CIA chief defends agency after torture report

Dehumanisation of African American men has reached a point where police shootings have been so normalised that a council of peers do not even feel it necessary to call police to legal account.

Extreme, violent and ideological war creates the exact conditions under which the meaning of torture is easily recast. Torturers did not see what they were doing as violating the most basic human dignity or acting with unspeakable cruelty.

Through moral justification, those committing torture told themselves (and others) that they were safeguarding the nation, saving the innocent and defending freedom.

Concerned people of the world must demand legal accountability from those responsible – the UN Convention on Torture demands it.

If, however, we are to craft an effective response to Feinstein’s noble call to make this a never again moment – not in words but in actions – we need to do more than punish guilty individuals. We need to attend, mindfully and systematically, and in a non-partisan manner to the political, institutional and ideological situations and systems that have made, and continue to make, torture a routine practice of security forces all over the world.

Otherwise, torture will remain just this. 

Professor Danielle Celermajer is based at the University of Sydney and leads a major project, funded by the European Union, which addresses the root causes of torture.

More from Author
Most Read