A recent account of Russian torture caught my eye. During the counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine liberated Balakliya, where they discovered what a Ukrainian official described as a “torture camp” fashioned from a police station. One former prisoner, who told the BBC he had been detained at the station for more than 40 days, described how the Russians used electricity in their interrogations. “They made me hold two wires. There was an electric generator. The faster it went, the higher the voltage. They said, ‘if you let it go, you are finished.’ Then they started asking questions. They said I was lying, and they started spinning it even more and the voltage increased.” Another prisoner told the BBC “she regularly heard screams from other cells.”
It seems there really is nothing new under the sun:
He was suspended from hooks, with his feet resting on the side of a large cylindrical drum attached to wires and a battery . . . When Mr. Habib did not give the answers his interrogators wanted, they threw a switch and a jolt of electricity went through the drum . . . The action of Mr. Habib “dancing” on the drum forced it to rotate, and his feet constantly slipped, leaving him suspended by only the hooks on the wall . . . This ingenious cruelty lasted until Mr. Habib finally fainted.
This is part of what my former client, Mamdouh Habib, described the first time I visited him at Guantánamo. Habib, who is Australian, had been one of the four petitioners in Rasul v. Bush (2004), in which the Supreme Court held that he and the other Guantánamo prisoners could challenge their detention in federal court. When I met him a few months after the decision, he told me the United States had rendered him from Pakistan to Egypt in 2002, where he was subjected to spectacular tortures, including this creative use of electricity. Another involved nudity and a German Shepherd dog.
Naturally, Habib confessed. Or more properly, he signed blank pages, which the Egyptians helpfully annotated with a laundry list of supposed sins against the United States. Habib, they said, confessed to a leadership role in al-Qaeda and a prominent part in the 9/11 attacks. I wrote up what Habib told me of his rendition and torture, got it cleared by the Department of Justice, and promptly emailed it to Dana Priest of the Washington Post, who wrote a front-page article describing his mistreatment, from which this snippet is taken.
That article appeared in January 2005, the same day former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales testified at his confirmation hearings to become Attorney General in the Bush White House. Illinois Senator Richard Durbin held up the Post article and asked Gonzales whether Habib’s rendition to torture had been illegal. Gonzales assured him that Habib’s account, if true, violated U.S. law. A few days later, I got a call from the Australian embassy telling me Habib would be released. A few weeks after that, I accompanied him on a flight from Guantánamo to Sydney on a sleek Gulfstream jet chartered by the Australian government. I am the only lawyer who has been allowed to accompany a client home from Guantánamo. He was never charged and has been free ever since. The United States no longer maintains he had any connection to al-Qaeda or 9/11, and has never condescended to defend its role in his torture.
But that was back in the days when testimony about American involvement in torture could still influence events. Revolting images from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were still fresh. Reports of prisoners beaten to death were coming to light from places like Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, and confidential sources were leaking accounts to journalists of sadistic brutality by U.S. soldiers. The president’s decision to jettison the Geneva Conventions had provoked howls of outrage, and Congress had finally begun to reassert its constitutional authority “to make rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.” In 2004, over half of Americans believed the United States was torturing prisoners as a matter of policy, and a whopping 72% condemned the practice, insisting that torture was “always wrong, even in the case of a war against terrorists.” Habib was released not because I am an especially clever lawyer, but because in 2005, talk of torture by the United States still mattered.
Since then, two things have happened. On one hand, 9/11 has largely faded from national consciousness. It’s not that 9/11 is irrelevant; on the contrary, it has radically altered the legal, cultural, and geopolitical landscape and will shape our present for the indefinite future. But those changes have now been thoroughly normalized, and talk about 9/11 no longer stirs the national blood. Once a year, we in the United States insist we will never forget 9/11 because we suspect in our hearts that we already have. In this amnesic cultural context, American torture is so 2002. It’s been eight years since Jack Bauer tortured a terrorist a week on national TV, and pollsters, those indefatigable takers of the American pulse, have not asked Americans for their views on torture since late 2016, the surest sign of its political and cultural irrelevance to domestic life.
Yet on the other hand, torture very much figures in the ever-expanding catalog of Russian horrors. Almost no day passes without a new account in the western press of Ukrainian prisoners who were tortured in nearly every conceivable way. Electric shocks figure prominently in these accounts, but freed prisoners, including American volunteers, also report the beatings and rapes they suffered and humiliations they endured. Retreating Russians leave mass graves where bodies bear the unmistakable signs of sadism: hands bound from behind and ropes around their neck. There is welcome talk of war crimes and international tribunals. Torture must not go unpunished, or so the west now insists.
So, we are faced with a moment when torture as something we do has faded from memory while torture as something they do has reclaimed its customary place in the cultural firmament. In every sense of the word, torture has once again become foreign to the American ear.
This process of repositioning torture has a number of baleful consequences. To begin with, it reinforces a familiar narrative of American innocence. When torture is hived off as the exception that proves our exceptionalism, we can file it in our mental memory as merely another of those inevitable wartime excesses, like Japanese and Japanese American incarceration and Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. We have a story for these moments that excuses even as it explains: Torture is a terrible thing, and it’s a shame it happened, but like earlier wartime misbehavior, it’s not who we really are. Thus neutered, torture becomes an unfortunate but forgivable deviation from our Whiggish romp through history, a meaningless detour on an endless ascent toward that more perfect Union.
But this bland, exculpatory story bowdlerizes the record. As I have shown elsewhere and at length, torture in the post-9/11 era did not follow the narrative arc we assign to it. Contrary to what is imagined, the attacks did not trigger a public demand for an orgy of retributive vengeance. In fact, quite the opposite. In November 2001, when we were still reeling from the attack and another seemed imminent, the Christian Science Monitor asked Americans whether they could “envision a scenario in the war against terrorism in which [they] would support . . . [the] torture of suspects held in the U.S. or abroad.” Only 32 percent said yes; 66 percent said no, and 2 percent had no opinion. A few months later, Fox News asked respondents if they could support torture “to obtain information that would protect the United States from a terrorist attack” and save “innocent lives.” Even framed this way, when the question all but begged Americans to endorse torture, fewer than one in four people supported it and nearly two-thirds opposed it.
Yet this hopeful foundation did not last. American soil has always been fertile ground for hatred. All it takes for it to grow and flourish—all it has ever taken—is a determined caretaker to plant the seed and nourish the thought as it takes root and spreads through the land. In late 2006, President George W. Bush acknowledged that the CIA had used “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) in secret black sites around the world to extract information from supposedly high-value prisoners. This political signal set in motion the partisan sorting that we have come to expect in American life, as Republican political and media elites insisted that the EITs were not torture, but even if they were, they were OK. For the remainder of the Bush presidency, the sorting proceeded fitfully, both because Bush was so unpopular, even among Republicans, and because John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, steadfastly opposed torture in all its forms, regardless of the euphemism employed to describe it.
But all that changed with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In one of his first official actions, Obama ended the CIA interrogation program, banned the use of the EITs, and announced plans to close Guantánamo, where the CIA prisoners were then held. In this context, rallying behind the CIA program became part and parcel of opposition to Obama, and Republican partisans leapt at the chance, typically appending their defense of the CIA to the charge that Obama had imperiled national security and jeopardized Americans. In 2009, for instance, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen published a 300-page broadside against Obama for dismantling the CIA program, the title of which said it all: Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack. By ending the CIA program, Thiessen said Obama “arguably did more damage to national security … than any president in American history.”
Support for the EITs quickly became part of American electoral politics. During the 2012 primary campaign, nearly every Republican candidate endorsed these techniques, including waterboarding: Mitt Romney (“I do not support torture, but I do support enhanced interrogation techniques to learn from terrorists what we need to le arn to keep the bombs from going off”); Michele Bachmann (“If I were president, I would be willing to use waterboarding. I think it was very effective”); Herman Cain (“I don’t see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique”); Rick Perry (“I am for using the techniques, not torture, but using those techniques that we know will extract the information to save young American lives. And I will be for it until I die”); Rick Santorum (“Some of this information that . . . led to Osama bin Laden actually came from these enhanced interrogation techniques”).
(In fairness, Republican support for torture was never universal; in the same campaign, Texas Congressman Ron Paul denounced all the EITs and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman opposed waterboarding, which he said was torture. Nor were Democrats universally opposed to torture; Hilary Clinton initially supported it in at least some cases, including the mythical ticking time bomb scenario, though she later changed her position.)
At the same time, the embrace of torture was abetted by a shameful abdication of moral and journalistic responsibility within the mainstream press. For roughly seventy years before 9/11, major papers in the United States almost invariably said or implied that waterboarding was torture. But in nearly three hundred articles published between 2002 and 2008, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today said or implied that waterboarding was torture only six times. Rather than call it torture, as they had for so many years, the papers adopted a variety of euphemisms, including “harsh,” “controversial,” “aggressive,” and “coercive.” Yet the same papers, before and after 9/11, consistently described waterboarding as torture when it was practiced by other countries.
In this cultural context, it was inevitable that large swaths of the public would come to accept torture, and they did. Polling conducted in August 2011 by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that more than seven in ten Republicans thought torture was often or sometimes justified “in order to gain important information”; only 13 percent took the position that torture is never acceptable. The numbers for self-identified conservatives are similar. The same poll found substantial support for torture among independents and Democrats, though well below Republican levels. Compared with the polling results in 2001 and 2002, when the threat was far more serious, support for torture had increased dramatically and across the board. Though Republicans and conservatives were the most enthusiastic supporters, they were by no means alone.
In short, the American embrace of torture did not just happen, as if the agentless expression of an insensate fury. Like hatred everywhere, it was cultivated.
This turn of events should not surprise us. Tens of millions of Americans can be made to lend their support for all manner of cruelty. Indeed, we can be made to demand it, to insist upon it as an essential and positive good, so long as it is defended with the seductive assurance that we will be secure in our homes and our hopes only when they are made to suffer. From this vantage, torture is not something we collectively stumbled upon in the fog of war. Quite the contrary, it is kin to all our most grotesque sins, the heir to slave patrols and the cousin to lynching, practices separated in scale but not in purpose. We strap a Muslim man to a board and pour water up his nose and down his throat, just as we hang a Black man from a sturdy limb and cage Latinx babies at the border, because we convince ourselves we must.
To be sure, some people require considerably less convincing than others. As the criminologist Matthew Williams has recently described so well, personality pairs with environment in these poor souls to make them exquisitely susceptible to the Siren of demonization. If given the opportunity, they become enthusiastic practitioners of the torturer’s art. Yet as Matthews makes plain, under the wrong conditions, all of us are capable of barbaric cruelty. One way to tell the world’s history is as a more or less uninterrupted tale of mass atrocities committed by “normal” people. Torture has always been part of this tale, sometimes to secure information but far more commonly to terrorize, brutalize, and intimidate. Torture and its triggering hatred have followed humanity like a shadow.
And this brings us to the second, and even more important, problem with the recent foreignization of torture: It blinds us to unwelcome and discomfiting parallels. Torture by the United States and Russia are no more the same than a mouse is the same as an elephant; differences in scale loom large. But we must reckon with the fact that they both spring from the same timeless conceit: that a people can torture their way to security. No nation ever has and none ever will. Lasting peace never comes from the lash. And we must acknowledge, however uncomfortably, that Americans can be led to embrace torture as thoroughly and as quickly as anyone else.
So yes, when we read that Russian soldiers have tortured and executed Ukrainian prisoners, we should condemn what has taken place and work for meaningful accountability. Part of that accountability must include an enforceable guarantee that torture never happens again. Not because torture is somehow different when it speaks with a foreign accent and not because Russian torture is the same as American, but because it is always, everywhere, equally wrong.