Wow, is stupidity the goal here?

Yesterday’s Times reported something about the development of the torture regime that, I think, says a lot (none good) about us as a society. 

In “In Adopting Harsh Tactics, No Look at Past Use” the reporters say “The program began with Central Intelligence Agency leaders in the grip of an alluring idea: They could get tough in terrorist interrogations without risking legal trouble by adopting a set of methods used on
Americans during military training. How could that be torture?”

  • and (Please excuse the long quote) “This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.” and “According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.
  • Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly
    researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding.
  • The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia. “

The banality of evil doesn’t have anything on this.  This is the mindless stupidity of evil.  Or is it?

What are we supposed to believe?  That no one in the top levels of the administration, Congress, the spy agencies knew the purpose of SERE or that waterboarding has a looong history?  C’mon, that is too unbelievable for the laugh test.  This leads me to three questions.  First, why float this story?  Second, what does this say about the decision-making process of the Bush administration?  Third, and perhaps most importantly, who was the torture directed at and why was it done?

The story is appearing now as an attempt, weak as it is, to excuse the behavior.  The old “we didn’t know” defense.  Nevermind that it has no legal standing as a defense, the purpose is to sucker some Fox viewers.  This defense plays along with Cheney’s “it works” defense.  Neither are really an excuse, but an attempt to wriggle from responsibility by pleading ignorance or to justify the behavior on the “ends justify the means” basis.  Never mind that the ignorance test doesn’t pass the laugh test or that the “it works” defense has been tested and has been shown to be wrong.

We are supposed to beleive that no one in any position of authority knew anything about the history of the Cold War, the Vietnam war, the US incursion in the Philippines, or popular culture (Manchurian Candidate, Monty Python, anyone).  I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I knew all of this before 2000.  Maybe Bush is this stupid, and Feith (according to Tommy Franks, the “stupidest fucking person in the world”), but everyone else?  No, this isn’t real ignorance, it can’t be.  This is something much darker.

So if people knew, they didn’t want to know and they didn’t want to tell the others.  Was this an unspoken agreement?  Were they scared of the others (Cheney scares me!)?  Either the top was very stupid and surrounded themselves with other stupid people, yes men, or people scared shitless of them.  Or the top wasn’t stupid and wanted to hurt people and were surrounded by stupid people, yes men, or people scared shitless.  Of course, both might be true – some at the top were stupid and some wanted to hurt people.

I have a hard time believing that they were all that stupid.  Some, at least wanted to hurt people.  The real question at this level is who was stupid and who wanted to hurt people.  The next question, and the more interesting, I think, is why did these people want to hurt others?

The simple answer as to why (and I admit, the one that I turned to first) is that they were sadists.  That may be true for some, but a more likely reason, I think, was to sow fear.  The reasons are not mutually exclusive.  Torture doesn’t get answers, but it does scare people.

Who might they want to scare and why?  Well, potential terrorists, certainly.  This is the same deterrence reason given for the death penalty and other harsh punishments.  The problem is that the studies go both way on this.  It doesn’t seem likely that it is strongly deterrent, especially not for committed terrorists.  So, it’s not really to prevent others from becoming terrorists (deterrence) nor is it to stop other attacks (sorry Jack Bauer, but it doesn’t work).  The only reason that I can think of, then, is punishment.  As punishment, torture is clearly illegal, but since it doesn’t look to the torturee but to the torturer and society as a whole, it may make some people feel better.  Pretty weak reason, though: to make some people feel better.  I don’t see that as a compelling enough reason to cause someone to participate in torture, though I may be wrong.

Who else might this be directed at?  To the extent that sadism was the motivation, the good feeling that Bush and the others got.  Sadly, I think that this was a major reason. Why?  they were the only ones who knew about it for a long time.  The knowledge of torture made them feel good – they enjoyed the power, the feeling of doing something, and punishing the other.

Who else might it be directed at?  One main group is those in government.  It was designed to cow them.  In so far as they went along with it, they were part of the conspiracy, and wouldn’t blow the whistle on this (or other crimes).  Also, it is intimidating.  If they will do this to them, why not me?  In the past, one difficulty with this is that one method that torturers used to use to excuse themselves was that the torturee was different, was less of a person.  This worked in much of the 20th century, less so at the end of the past century.  Though, the former Bush administration is still trying to use this (torture helps Muslims follow their religion – read this to try to understand).

The last group is the general public in the US and the world.  Unfortunately, I think that this may have been one of the main reasons.  Why?  For part of the society, it may be the feeling that “justice was done” and for the rest: intimidation.

So, what do we have?  Some sadists who got some kicks and get a feeling that justice was being done.  Also, those close to them who might not have agreed were shut up, and much of the rest of the country was cowed.

How did we get to a place where stupid sadists were running the show and, worse, that stupidity could be seen as a valid defense.  Ouch!


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