“Enhanced Interrogation” and framing the debate

The recent controversy over releasing details of the torture program, or even whether the brutal practices, as redefined in a secret legal memo, technically even constituted torture, is the most recent, grotesque, example of what has happened to dialogue in our winner-take-all and the rest of you fucking losers go home culture.  

One side argues that torture violates our values, however you slice it, rename it, justify it in secret memos, and that the best disinfectant is sunlight.  The other side argues that to call coercive interrogation “torture”, and reveal the secret details about how, where and when such tough but necessary things were done, weakens our great nation’s security and makes us more vulnerable to those intent on destroying us — people who deserve to be tortured, in any case.

Instead of discussion there are twitch reflexes conveyed in our black and white mass media and reflected back by the populace.  Opponents of torture argue that ten years after the worst abuses by the CIA, with nobody in the administration that engineered and enabled the program ever held accountable (except by lifetime tenure on the Federal Court, appointment to the faculty of a major university, lucrative book deals and speaking tours, etc.), it is long past time to reveal the hideous details to ensure an episode like this is never repeated.   On the other side, former Vice President Dick Cheney, architect and proponent of the program, goes on the air and defiantly dismisses the report as a “load of crap”, 500 pages of weak drivel that misses the point entirely, written by partisan wimps who don’t have the stomach to do what must be done.

Here’s the funny thing, though.  There is no news in this report.  Virtually everything of consequence that this subcommittee took years, and presumably millions of dollars, to compile, and which was released (525 pages of the 6,000 page report, 90% still highly classified) amidst such trepidation and controversy, has already been published, in 2008, in a New York Times best seller and finalist for the National Book Award, Jane Mayer’s chilling The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.*

Reading the book I was chilled to the bone at what was being done in my name.  I am chilled today, even as I learn, from Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, that the CIA was replaced by the equally secretive JSOC (at the time Donald Rumsfeld’s elite secret force) as the masters of the interrogation and torture program fairly early on– meaning that this revealed CIA torture was the tip of the iceberg as far as torture goes.  

At the time this “enhanced interrogation” was going on, and the first public revelations of it were rippling across the media, I was at a concert in Town Hall enjoying David Bromberg’s music.  Toward the end of his show he usually does a meditative tune based on  the Rip Van Winkle story. The narrator wakes up after a 20 year sleep and doesn’t recognize his home, his town, his country.   Bromberg, a humanistic and probably progressive secular Jew from Tarrytown, NY, (where Rip Van Winkle author Washington Irving spent the last third of his celebrated life), improvises a commentary about disturbing current events, his guitar vamping behind him.  

As he began musing about the arguably unAmerican things the Bush Administration had been up to, a man in the audience angrily cut him off, shouting that he was there for music, not politics.  The disgruntled man, a couple of rows behind me, wore a military jacket.   Bromberg looked at him, nodded and shrugged.  

He said “we torture people?  Now it’s OK to torture people?” and began singing again.



*   The book became a best-seller in non-fiction hardcover in the United States, with its author Jane Mayer booked on various news programs for interviews. It later made the New York Times Book Review editors’ list of “10 Best Books of 2008”[2] and was nominated for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction.[3] The book was a finalist for the National Book Awards.[4]

It also received the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights 29th annual book award in 2009, given to a novelist who “most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy’s purposes – his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity.”[5]


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