In a recent Hugh Eakin New York Books interview, Mark Danner does a masterful job of dissecting the voids, contradictions, and failures of the recent Senate report on the CIA’s torture program. This interview article, “Our New Politics of Torture,” includes many observations and gems. One comment by Danner, in particular, stuck out because it points to a wider and more profound flaw in modern state sovereignty. Danner concludes that the major problem with the U.S. torture, or “enhanced interrogation,” program was that it was mostly about our fears and, more exactly, the fears of our officials and leaders in the U.S. state. He states that,
“It’s an epistemological paradox: How do you prove what you don’t know? And from this open question comes this anxiety-ridden conviction that he must know, he must know, he must know. So even though the interrogators are saying he’s compliant, he’s telling us everything he knows—even though the waterboarding is nearly killing him, rendering him “completely non-responsive,” as the report says—officials at headquarters was saying he has to be waterboarded again, and again, because he still hadn’t given up information about the attacks they were convinced had to be coming. They kept pushing from the other side of the world for more suffering and more torture.”
Thus, we tortured because we were so afraid of another attack, of being surprised, of being embarrassed and shamed, of the terrorists! Aside from the idea that our fear is exactly what the terrorists wanted… and achieved, there is another very grave conclusion that we can make. It was not just the CIA that was afraid. The American people were very afraid too. And our state leaders, from Bush to Cheney to Rumsfeld to Congress, were very afraid indeed. Why? Primarily, I think, because terrorism strikes at the achilles heal of modern states, especially Super Powers like the U.S. All of our weapons systems and armed forces are geared to repel and preempt attacks against us by other nation-states. But this is precisely what terrorism is not.
Terrorists have no specific land to call their own. They have no military bases. They have no standing army. They operate without a specific chain of command. They operate like independent cells. There is no easy way to destroy its head, no matter how many drone strikes we deliver to eliminate terrorist leaders. Our missiles sit impotently in their silos. Our ships and planes circle “problem areas” but cannot encounter the enemy. We can spend billions and billions more on Defense, without a noticeable impact on our security.
Global travel, communications, and capital flows makes terrorist location, actions, and intentions so much more difficult to trace and block. The U.S. State is reduced to relying on information, and the CIA, in a much more profound and, ultimately incomprehensible way. The information we need is complicated, dense, unreliable, and often complicated by pesky things like human and constitutional rights. One can sense the exasperation of state leaders. Complaints about constitutionality of the bulk screening of U.S. civilian phone calls and emails are rendered irrelevant by the realization that intelligence officials have no other way of knowing what terrorists are up to. Thus, a recent government report lamented that
“From a technological standpoint, curtailing bulk data collection means analysts will be deprived of some information,” said Robert F. Sproull, the chairman of the committee that examined the problem and a former director of Oracle’s Sun Labs.”
That scares the hell out of state leaders. And thus, like a parent, who cannot get a child to behave with mere words and nagging, state leaders feel compelled to resort to violence. Their hope is that it will deliver the cooperation and information they need to not be embarrassed and shamed… by terrorists. But, ultimately, torture does not work. It just inflames and expands the terrorism.