In October 2002, six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, suspected militant Gul Rahman was captured in Pakistan and taken to an abandoned factory in Afghanistan for questioning by the CIA. COBALT, last week’s Senate report called the place; at the time it was known as the Salt Pit. Rahman had been seized in the company of an insurgent group leader, and, like that suspect, Rahman was rumored to be a very bad man. He was violently uncooperative, we’re told, and threatened to kill his guards, and with the image of World Trade Center jumpers fresh in their minds, you can imagine how his guards reacted to that threat. This was early days, before the CIA had established the guidelines for enhanced interrogation they’re now having to defend, and the rules were few. Whatever else happened to Rahman in the Salt Pit, and we can guess it was terrible, we know how his time there ended. He was stripped naked from the waist down and chained to a wall “in a position that required the detainee to rest on the bare concrete floor.” That description is from the Senate report. He was left in that position for hours.
Physics is physics, and the law of thermal equilibrium demands that a warmer object in contact with a cooler object will give away its heat. Sooner or later, assuming nothing or nobody interferes, the two things will become the same temperature. Rahman’s cell, including the floor, dipped as low as 36 degrees that night, and as he lay with his bare skin against the cold concrete, Rahman would have felt his temperature dropping too, his warmth seeping away into the floor, his blood yielding to the peer pressure physics placed on it and chilling to the same near-freezing cold as the concrete. Nothing and nobody interfered.
After the Senate report came out last week detailing Rahman’s death, the waterboarding of others and a disturbing collection of sleep deprivations, rectal feedings, and ice water dousing, good people were sickened. But a roughly equal number of people, also good and caring souls, stood by the need to torture. Those were frightening days, they said, those months and years after 9/11, and if torture could save thousands of American lives or even one precious life, then it was worth it, wasn’t it? We’ve forgotten how imminent the danger was, how terrible the plans being plotted against us were. And besides, it wasn’t torture, they said. It was enhanced interrogation and it was necessary. It was honorable. It was what we had to do.
Fear is a hellish emotion and all reason is consumed in its fire. When someone like The View’s Nicole Wallace defends enhanced interrogation, my gut twists with her passion. She speaks of the moments immediately after the planes smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when her job as White House communications chief placed her at ground zero of a probable next attack. After being told to remove her heels, that she could run faster in her bare feet, Wallace called her dad to say that she loved him, to tell him what could have been her last goodbye. I get why Wallace feels as she does. But fear is exactly that: a feeling, not a logical debate.
The logical argument for torture hinges on an assumption which seems irrefutable to those who hold it: that the safety of our loved ones comes above all else. On this morning’s Meet The Press Chuck Todd asked former Vice President Dick Cheney if he was concerned by the revelation that 25% of those detained were innocent. No, Cheney wasn’t. Because Cheney’s definition of torture isn’t the waterboarding of a non-citizen who had done nothing to deserve it, but the unwarranted deaths of 3,000 of our own. Others may matter (I can’t believe Cheney is a completely heartless man) but our people matter more and the inalienable rights endowed by our creator according to our Declaration of Independence are null and void if you’re not a citizen of our states. Instead Cheney observes a harsher law for possible terrorists, a sort of Golden Rule with a dark and dehumanizing twist: Do unto others before they can do unto you.
The annoying truth about irrefutable arguments, though, is that there’s always someone ready to refute them. For every ex-VP ready to wall slam a terrorist, there’s a McCain saying that’s not who we are, that Americans are better than that. For every television commentator saying we did what we had to do, there’s another one reminding us that our humanity matters too, that if the price of our security is the systematic and unrelenting torture of another human being, then we’ve made a bad bargain; the cost is too high. We shouldn’t have to trade our souls for our safety.
Maybe Stephen Crane said it best:
A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other.
We can thank God we haven’t had another attack like 9/11 but no doubt we should be thanking the CIA as well. They kept us safe from the assassins. They did their job and I am grateful for their service, but I am also grateful to live in a country that isn’t afraid of transparency, that is willing to turn over the rocks and examine the slimy underside of our national policies. And since words matter, I’m thankful we have voices who will speak up and call enhanced interrogation what it really is: torture. Whether it is right or wrong, let’s at least own that. We tortured people. We did. We tortured Abu Zubaydah.
According to the Senate report, Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-Qaeda fighter, had already given up any information he appeared to have but the CIA wasn’t satisfied. They placed him in a coffin-sized box for 266 hours and an even smaller box for another 29 hours, beat him, and waterboarded him so aggressively that he became “unresponsive, with bubbles rising up through his open, full mouth.” He was waterboarded more than 83 times in the space of a single month. In a CIA note quoted by the report, it was said that during his interrogation several on the CIA team were “profoundly affected, some to the point of tears and choking up.”
Assassin or victim; it’s a complicated business. There is no irrefutable right or wrong, but there are choices to be made. We can decide what threats outweigh our integrity, and whether torture is more moral than any risk to American lives. We can choose what kind of people we want to be. May we choose wisely.