From allies’ mistrust to the fate of the 9/11 detainees, the U.S. legacy of atrocity still corrodes national security.
Writing in 1958, Jean-Paul Sartre pondered the tortured victims of French colonialism and wondered how his country could have fallen so completely. Not two decades had passed since he and his fellow Parisians had listened to the screams coming from Gestapo headquarters in the Rue Lauriston. “Happy are those who died without ever having had to ask themselves: ‘If they tear out my fingernails, will I talk?’” Sartre wrote. “But even happier are others, barely out of their childhood, who have not had to ask themselves that other question: ‘If my friends, fellow soldiers and leaders tear out an enemy’s fingernails in my presence, what will I do?’”
The same question now looms over the United States, as it has ever since we debased ourselves by accepting torture. In doing so we have foolishly squandered our reputation and endangered critical alliances. Gina Haspel’s prospective nomination as the next CIA director indicates to our allies that we have learned nothing, and perhaps we have not. Refusing to clearly confront past atrocities has only made their repetition more likely, and harmed our national security by sowing distrust and resentment the world over.
We have denied even ourselves justice. More than a decade after they were captured, few of the major conspirators behind the Sept. 11 attacks have been tried or convicted, because to do so would drag into the light the terrible practices to which they have been subjected in our names. Because the legacy of torture has been too inconvenient to address, the just punishment of terrorism has been subordinated to political expediency. It is unclear whether the 9/11 conspirators will ever be tried at all. Meanwhile, hundreds of other terrorists have been successfully convicted and imprisoned by civilian courts without the intervention of extraordinary measures. If our national security is found in our ability to reach out into the world and right wrongs done to us, then it is not found in torture.
Our ambivalence has also endangered the successful pursuit of ISIS: the United Kingdom has felt obliged to seek assurances of civilized conduct before consenting to transfer terrorism suspects into our custody. President Trump’s boisterous promises to revive the hateful practice have even forced Prime Minister Theresa May to declare that “we do not sanction torture and do not get involved in it” in an effort to tamp down some calls to end their extradition treaty with the United States.
And last year, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court sought to investigate any crimes committed during the war in Afghanistan. While there are no certainties about what she may do or find, if any Americans are indicted, they would face immediate arrest in 124 countries around the world, including NATO allies. Because we have never confronted our odious legacy of torture and black-masked kidnappings domestically, allies may now be forced to choose between their obligation to international law and loyalty to an old friend.
Such choices are already being considered in Germany. As reported by MSN and Deutsche Welle, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights has filed an intervention with federal prosecutors seeking Gina Haspel’s arrest should she ever enter the country. Their petition is under review, but it follows in spirit from the previously issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA agents who helped to kidnap Khaled el-Masri, a case that greatly strained relations between our countries.
A Way to Move Forward
But, besides reproach, Germany also offers a model as to how to move forward. They have long struggled with their own legacy of horror, the most recent expression of which came in a raft of revived prosecutions of perpetrators who had, despite their roles in historic crimes, otherwise led normal lives. Oskar Groening was one of them. Though he died last week before his sentence could be carried out, his case and others like it are nonetheless essential examples of the least understood and most challenging facts about participation in atrocity.
The fact is that such participation does not depend upon any sort of unique rabidity among the perpetrators, or the societies from whence they came.
Though there can be no comparison by scale, the privations which Nazism inflicted upon its victims have not vanished from this earth. Nor have the prejudices which moved them. Despite our righteous self-image, we have ourselves been party to and agent of many of the same degrading tortures as were once meted out from within the Reichssicherheitshauptamt in Berlin.
Perhaps the most enduring question to haunt our understanding of ourselves and crimes like the Holocaust is: how could a people not unlike ourselves have committed one of the worst crimes in human history?
Because that question is so difficult to face, it is rarely considered rigorously. It is simpler to maintain that the perpetrators were not, in fact, like ourselves: that they were inscrutably evil, or perhaps thoughtless automatons. Such conceptions do not excuse their responsibility, but they do ease our own burden of self-examination. Because we are troubled by what was done, because we have no evil intent, because we are not fanatics, or thoughtless in our action, past crimes might appear to be entirely foreign to our modern selves.
However, examples like Oskar Groening’s should move us to rethink our understanding of atrocity and its accessibility. The complicated truth is that people may resist atrocity or abet it depending on the moment, and there is rarely any logic to the moral contortions through which any ordinary person explains away horror as necessary or unavoidable. Remembering the Holocaust should remind us of the impermanence of human resolution, and warn us that failing to confront our own past mistakes sets us on a course to repeat them.
James Mitchell, one of the psychologists who charged the U.S. government millions of dollars while shaping its torture program, has sought to shirk his responsibility by claiming that “we were soldiers doing what we were instructed to do.” His defense draws uncomfortably near to that given by the defendants at Nuremberg, and should give us pause.
The truth is that none of us should feel so secure as to assume that our own societies are immune to the mistakes of petty cowardice that propelled the Holocaust and other atrocious crimes. In today’s United States there live men and women who conspired to drown people so that they could revive them and then drown them again.
Gina Haspel’s nomination is therefore more than a momentary political problem. It underscores a festering sickness in our society that grows from our unfounded presumption that we are above atrocity.
The idea that torture was done in service of the nation begets the question of what sort of nation is served by it. “Anyone who is tortured remains tortured,” wrote Austrian philosopher and Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry, “anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world, the abomination of the annihilation is never extinguished. Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again.”
This is true not just of torture’s victims but of its perpetrators, enablers, and purported beneficiaries. The most enduring harm done to our nation has come not from the external enemies who challenge us, dangerous though they may be, but rather from our own tolerance for depravity when it is done in our name. The former we can confront with clear hearts, while the latter will fester until it sours our nation.