One of the more important lessons in my life came when a young Panamanian professional told me he would not leave. He held his ground on the court with his tennis bag at his side and calmly explained to me, in the bright, sterile glow of mercury vapor lights, what the problem was. In his view, I was in his country and had no moral authority to tell him to leave the premises. He explained it very well, in English, and in a way that ensured I would understand the anger and indignation he was experiencing. The MPs arrived with German shepherds and when the dogs crossed the sideline, the young man calmly grabbed his bag. He told me he was leaving now but that this would not go away. He was right about that. Whatever is left of that tennis court is now where it had always belonged, in the sovereign warmth of the Republic of Panama. I was thinking of this long-ago encounter after reading the latest of Jane Mayer's powerful and immensely painful reporting for The New Yorker on the CIA, the Bush Administration, and torture. It's entitled "The Black Sites," and every American should read it.
Torture is not a new element of American power. Not far from where I got my briefing from the young Panamanian man is the former U.S. military base that used to house the notorious School of the Americas where the U.S. military trained officers from throughout Latin America. In 1996, The Washington Post reported that, for nearly a decade, the school's curriculum included manuals on the use of executions, torture and blackmail in counterinsurgency operations. Of course, a Latin American insurgent in those years could be a priest or a nun fighting for social justice or against human rights abuses. So, our trip to the "dark side," as the vice president put it six years ago, didn't begin after 9/11. It was a feature of how several American-supported regimes functioned in Latin America for many years. Overall, it's a deeply troubling history, and Americans by and large don't want to dig into it. We mostly think that if we don't talk about it, then it all go away. But the people of Latin America aren't likely to forget.
As best I can tell from Mayer's and others' reporting, the Bush Administration has not only revived torture as an important element of our foreign policy but has gone to extraordinary lengths to try to create enough confusion so as to allow the president and vice president room for deniability. Yet it is happening, and Mayer's evidence for it is not only overwhelming but enriched by a wrenching account of what happened to an American interrogator involved in the simulated drowning of a top Al Qaeda operative. Foreign policy scholars talk about the "blowback" of unforeseen consequences of clandestine activities. We can add to that human "blowback." Mayer's account of this phenomenon is not an isolated one. If the interrogators have a conscience and are to any extent imbued with the best values our schools and churches try to instill in American kids, then the interrogators, it turns out, are being deeply scarred by subjecting others to torture.
Think about that and remember that the interrogators are working for you. Think about that the next time you see Cheney or Bush glance away from their interviewers as they say we don't torture or as they mumble about "enhanced" interrogation techniques that no one is at liberty to discuss. Think about it until it makes you sick, because the more it sickens you, the more you're getting through the distractions of ordinary life to the purity of this national sin.
Mayer's reporting raises hard questions about the notion that putting people under excruciating duress is the best way to get reliable information out of them. But we'd be much too far down the path to perdition if we were even to consider that this is the argument that matters most. It does not. What matters is who we are and what we stand for. The notion that you can be evil in careful measures so as to combat what you think is a greater evil is a cancer not just to American foreign policy but to the idea of America as the model for a just and moral society. It also happens to be a gift to the recruiting efforts of groups like Al Qaeda.
Torture is the ultimate abuse of power. It is un-American to not fight back against it. If you find it's too easy to think (as Bush and Cheney would like us to) that Guantanamo or the dark prison near the airport in Kabul are so far away as to be not about us, but about things that happen in a world somehow disconnected from who you are, you need to break that spell. It really is about you. It's about what's being done in your name and mine.