What We Talk About When We Talk About Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Two things stand out about “The Black Sites,” Jane  Mayer’s excellent piece in this week’s New Yorker (a note to my lazier readers: Gawker has a funnier, dumber and shorter version) peeking inside the CIA’s secret interrogation program, particularly through the experience of 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: 1) Comparing this piece to Mark Bowden’s Atlantic Monthly story, “The Dark Art of Interrogation” says a lot about how we’ve changed over the last four years. In Bowden’s 2003 story, which is fascinating, complete and to my mind by far the best thing published in an American magazine on the subject, the conclusion is that torture is most likely going on, and that it’s a necessary evil; for instance, here:

The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced. Those who protest coercive methods will exaggerate their horrors, which is good: it generates a useful climate of fear. It is wise of the President to reiterate U.S. support for international agreements banning torture, and it is wise for American interrogators to employ whatever coercive methods work. It is also smart not to discuss the matter with anyone.

This isn’t to say that Bowden would be a supporter of all the administration has done to provide legal cover for torture. But, writing six months before Abu Ghraib, there’s much more of a willingness to accept these methods if they produce results (and Bowden is, to be fair, properly skeptical about the effectiveness of many of these things) than Mayer, writing four years later, shows.

2) One of the most interesting bits in the New Yorker story isn’t about what torture does to others; it’s what torture does to us:

The former officer said that the C.I.A. kept a doctor standing by during interrogations. He insisted that the method was safe and effective, but said that it could cause lasting psychic damage to the interrogators. During interrogations, the former agency official said, officers worked in teams, watching each other behind two-way mirrors. Even with this group support, the friend said, Mohammed’s interrogator “has horrible nightmares.” He went on, “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it’s well outside the norm. You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you.” He said of his friend, “He’s a good guy. It really haunts him. You are inflicting something really evil and horrible on somebody.”

And that, in a way, is one of the biggest legacy of Gitmo, of Abu Ghraib, of a regime of secret rendition flights, of a denial of  habeas corpus: We are all of us going to that dark place, without really thinking about how it will change who we are.

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