A scene from "Torturing Democracy." (Image: TorturingDemocracy.org)
In all the recent debate over torture, many of our Beltway pundits and politicians have twisted themselves into verbal contortions to avoid using the word at all.
During his speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute last week - immediately on the heels of President Obama's address at the National Archives - former Vice President Dick Cheney used the euphemism "enhanced interrogation" a full dozen times.
Smothering the reality of torture in euphemism, of course, has a political value, enabling its defenders to diminish the horror and possible illegality. It also gives partisans the opening they need to divert our attention by turning the future of the prison at Guantanamo Bay into a "wedge issue," as noted on the front page of Sunday's New York Times.
According to the Times, "Armed with polling data that show a narrow majority of support for keeping the prison open and deep fear about the detainees, Republicans in Congress started laying plans even before the inauguration to make the debate over Guantanamo Bay a question of local community safety instead of one about national character and principles."
No political party would dare make torture a cornerstone of its rejuvenation if people really understood what it is. And lest we forget, we're not just talking about waterboarding, itself a trivializing euphemism for drowning.
If we want to know what torture is, and what it does to human beings, we have to look at it squarely, without flinching. That's just what a powerful and important film, seen by far too few Americans, does. "Torturing Democracy" was written and produced by one of America's outstanding documentary reporters, Sherry Jones. (Excerpts from the film are being shown on the current edition of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS - check local listings, or go to the program's web site at www.pbs.org/moyers, where you can be linked to the entire 90-minute documentary.)
Sherry Jones, a longtime colleague, and the film were honored this week with the prestigious RFK Journalism Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. "Torturing Democracy" was cited for its "meticulous reporting," and described as "the definitive broadcast account of a deeply troubling chapter in recent American history."
Unfortunately, as events demonstrate, the story is not yet history; the early chapters aren't even closed. Torture still is being defended as a matter of national security, although by law it is a war crime, with those who authorized and executed it liable for prosecution as war criminals. The war on terror sparked impatience with the rule of law - and fostered the belief within our government that the commander-in-chief had the right to ignore it.
"Torturing Democracy" begins at 9/11 and recounts how the Bush White House and the Pentagon decided to make coercive detention and abusive interrogation the official US policy in the war on terror. In sometimes graphic detail, the documentary describes the experiences of several men who were held in custody, including Shafiq Rasul, Moazzam Begg and Bisher al-Rawi, all of whom eventually were released. Charges never were filed against them and no reason was ever given for their years in custody.
The documentary traces how tactics meant to train American troops to survive enemy interrogations - the famous SERE program ("Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape") - became the basis for many of the methods employed by the CIA and by interrogators at Guantanamo and in Iraq, including waterboarding (which inflicts on its victims the terror of imminent death), sleep and sensory deprivation, shackling, caging, painful stress positions and sexual humiliation.
"We have re-created our enemy's methodologies in Guantanamo," Malcolm Nance, former head of the Navy's SERE training program, says in "Torturing Democracy." He adds, "It will hurt us for decades to come. Decades. Our people will all be subjected to these tactics, because we have authorized them for the world now. How it got to Guantanamo is a crime and somebody needs to figure out who did it, how they did it, who authorized them to do it ... Because our servicemen will suffer for years."
In addition to its depiction of brutality, "Torturing Democracy" also credits the brave few who stood up to those in power and said, "No." In Washington, there were officials of conviction horrified by unfolding events, including Alberto Mora, the Navy's top civilian lawyer, Maj. Gen. Thomas Romig, who served as judge advocate general of the US Army from 2001 to 2005 and Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, a former senior prosecutor with the Office of Military Commissions.
Much has happened since the film's initial telecast on some public television stations last fall. Once-classified memos from the Bush administration have been released that reveal more details of the harsh techniques used against detainees whose guilt or innocence is still to be decided.
President Obama has announced he will close Guantanamo by next January, with the specifics to come later in the summer. That was enough to set off hysteria among Democrats and Republicans alike who don't want the remaining 240 detainees on American soil - even in a super-maximum-security prison, the kind already holding hundreds of terrorist suspects. The president also triggered criticism from constitutional and civil liberties lawyers when he suggested that some detainees may be held indefinitely, without due process.
But in an interview with Radio Free Europe this week, Gen. David Petraeus, the man in charge of the military's Central Command, praised the Guantanamo closing, saying it "sends an important message to the world" and will help advance America's strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In another revealing and disturbing development, the former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, has suggested what is possibly as scandalous a deception as the false case Bush and Cheney made for invading Iraq. Colonel Wilkerson writes that in their zeal to prove a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein during the months leading up to the Iraq war, one suspect held in Egypt, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was water tortured until he falsely told the interrogators what they wanted to hear.
That phony confession, which Wilkerson says was wrung from a broken man who simply wanted the torture to stop, was then used as evidence in Colin Powell's infamous address to the United Nations shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Powell says that everything in his speech was vetted by the CIA and that Wilkerson's allegation is only speculation. We'll never know the full story - al-Libi died three weeks ago in a Libyan prison. A suicide.
Or so they say.
No wonder so many Americans clamor for a truth commission that will get the facts and put them on the record, just as "Torturing Democracy" has done. Then we can judge for ourselves.
As the editors of The Christian Century magazine wrote this week, "Convening a truth commission on torture would be embarrassing to the US in the short term, but in the long run it would demonstrate the strength of American democracy and confirm the nation's adherence to the rule of law.... Understandably, [the president] wants to turn the page on torture. But Americans should not turn the page until they know what is written on it."
Watch "Torturing Democracy" here.
Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.