Kristofer Petersen-Overton

Torture is a violation of the law, both domestic and international. It also happens to be a moral outrage. Leaving aside the legal definitions, the abstract notion of a moral outrage entails a degree of subjective judgment—but tends to be more easily identifiable to outsiders than to insiders. After all, few of us possess the moral clarity it takes to reflect upon our own transgressions with the same zeal we readily adopt against others. 

In the age of modern nationalism, we extrapolate from individuals and apply the same idea to the various institutions and agencies tasked with representing the political community at large. It is a matter of little dispute, for example, that Iran practices torture against prisoners. Most Americans accept this as obvious and uncontroversial, whether or not they happen to have read the latest human rights reports. Yet when agents acting on behalf of the United States stand accused of such practices—as they have with the partial release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture—euphemism becomes a national pastime. 

Take former vice President Dick Cheney’s recent remarks on Meet the Press, an especially adamant defense of the CIA’s interrogation program. There he insisted that waterboarding, a practice refined by the Spanish inquisitors and later embraced by Nazi Germany during WWII, is not a form of torture. Cheney has been consistently eager to draw a clear distinction between CIA actions and torture: the former ostensibly justified, the latter a legal and moral outrage. 

While prominent voices within the mass media rightly dismiss Cheney’s arguments as a weak defense offered by someone directly implicated, a recent poll suggests that half the country doesn’t believe his distinction anyway. 49 percent of respondents believe that CIA methods were torture. Despite this, a whopping 59 percent nonetheless believe it was justified. President Obama can deny it all he likes, but torture has seemingly become very much a part of “who we are.”

The passage of torture from unambiguous moral outrage to just another tool of American power is a remarkable story, but not a particularly surprising one if we consider the efforts undertaken to obscure it. The use of euphemism, legalese, the absence of victim’s voices in the media, and in some cases outright suppression of evidence, have all contributed to keeping the unpalatable details out of the spotlight. How are we to exercise moral judgment without an adequate view of the facts? 

The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch believed that clear moral vision, the capacity for gaining “a refined and honest perception of what is really the case” requires immense determination. It requires a process of “unselfing,” her term for the stripping away of self-centered conceits and the influence of various ideological justifications (nationalism, sexism, religious dogma, etc.) that make it difficult for us to appreciate how others experience the world. By giving our full attention to the question at hand and exercising empathy, we are able to arrive at an appropriate moral judgment. Yet Murdoch’s emphasis on moral attention is completely meaningless when confronted with an ethical dilemma that cannot be seen in full. This is precisely the problem with torture. 

Torture is conducted in secret, in dark rooms, by individuals whose identities are typically unknown to the general public. The victims are often anonymous. Whatever reassurances offered by our political leaders as to the humanity of the methods or to the tightly restricted conditions under which these methods are deployed, there has been very little discussion concerning the very real physical and psychological consequences of torture. Because of this, I suspect that what appears to be robust American support for torture is actually quite flimsy; it would likely collapse if confronted with a bit of transparency (and some Murdochian moral attention). 

Is the public aware, for instance, that more than one hundred people have died in U.S. custody and that many of these deaths were later ruled homicides by military investigators? My students certainly were not, until I had them read about it. I teach a course on the history and politics of torture at Lehman College and many of my students—most of who arrived as determined proponents of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—are horrified to learn that people have been literally tortured to death in American custody. Few of us are able dismiss this terrible truth as contemptuously as is Dick Cheney, who apparently has “no problem” with the deaths of wrongfully imprisoned detainees “as long as we achieve our objective.”

The invisibility of torture is not only a byproduct of widespread ignorance of the grisly details, however. It is also a result of the sterile descriptions used. If political language is, as George Orwell famously wrote, designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” the written language of torture is designed to render the horrific benign. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” is by now widely recognized as the Bush Administration’s major contribution to the art of euphemism, but the individual techniques themselves continue to go unchallenged. 

In print, “forced standing” reads like a minor inconvenience; “sensory deprivation” like a game of hide-and-seek; “rough handling” like a fraternal wrestling match; “stress positions” like a particularly intense session of yoga. This language is intentional. Modern torturers have dispensed with crude methods, and have instead devised techniques that remain either palatable or invisible to the general public. The political scientist Darius Rejali calls such techniques “clean torture,” practices perceived as less physically violent because they leave no permanent scars but which nevertheless cause immense physical suffering and often irreversible psychological damage. 

Euphemism is not always up to the task however. One of the more disturbing revelations described in the torture report is the CIA’s practice of “rectal rehydration,” a term that term barely conceals the brutality of the act: force-feeding through the anus. If we take American federal law as a guide, which forbids “[t]he penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object … without the consent of the victim,” the practice would be more honestly described as “rape.” Even if the American public is told that such a practice is “legal,” as various pundits and politicians have claimed in recent days, the moral outrage remains. When 59 percent of the country claims to support the CIA’s interrogation practices, I doubt they have “rectal rehydration” in mind.

Very occasionally, we are offered more than either euphemisms or silence. The Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal became the national outrage it did mainly because of the abundance of photographic evidence provided by the perpetrators. As the cliché has it, a picture is worth a thousand words; images of atrocities shock the conscience in ways the written word rarely achieves. One suspects that it is for this reason that President Obama has refused to declassify thousands of unreleased photographs depicting the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, despite promising to do so as he entered office. 

Major General Taguba, who led the investigation into the abuse at Abu Ghraib, has repeatedly claimed the unreleased photographs depict rape (the White House and Pentagon deny this) and yet he still urges that they not be declassified. As he argues, “the mere description of these pictures is horrendous enough, take my word for it.” While the techniques detailed in the Senate Intelligence report easily match and in some cases exceed the abuses committed by soldiers at Abu Ghraib, the CIA wisely destroyed all video evidence of waterboarding. All we are left with are the written descriptions.

Public opinion is important. It signals to our leaders the public’s willingness to either accept or oppose policy prescriptions. As Louis Brandeis once wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In this case, I doubt enough sunlight has been shed to foster adequate moral vision on the public’s behalf. When we’re told that a large majority of the American people now embrace torture as a necessary part of twenty-first century politics, we need to ask how that position developed. What is it the American people think the CIA has been up to all this time and how well does this picture match the reality? Declassifying the rest of the 6,000-page torture report won’t bridge this chasm on its own, but it would go a long way towards establishing basic conditions for moral vision. It might even allow for the kind of moral attention Iris Murdoch believed was necessary for understanding “what is really the case.”

Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton is a doctoral candidate of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center and an adjunct lecturer at Lehman College and Brooklyn College. His dissertation is a normative account of the concept of "atrocity."