The National Security and Human Rights Campaign at the Open Society Foundations supports organizations that are working to protect civil liberties in post-9/11 America and to promote national security policies that respect human rights. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, contributing Campaign grantees offer reflections on their work in this series 9/11 at 10.
On the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, President Obama reflected on the resilience of Americans after the attacks. "They wanted to terrorize us,” he said, “but, as Americans, we refuse to live in fear.”
But, while Americans did indeed respond admirably to the horrible events of September 2001, the government responded less admirably. It allowed itself to be terrorized and gave away far too much to fear. It was fear that led the government to abandon respect for fundamental American ideals, and it was the government’s abandonment of fundamental Americans ideals—making torture U.S. policy—that led me to speak out.
I am a Brigadier General and a retired Army Reserve strategic intelligence officer. I’m also a former Republican member of the Utah House of Representatives. In other words, I’m not the kind of person you would expect to denounce the policies of a Republican administration. But the stakes were too great to stay silent.
I joined with a group of retired military leaders to oppose torture. Our efforts helped to create the political will in Washington that culminated in President Obama’s executive order banning the practice. The President invited members of our coalition to join him in the White House for the signing ceremony on January 22, 2009.
I wish the story ended there, but ten years after 9/11—and five months after the death of Osama Bin Laden—the debate over torture continues. At the top of the New York Times bestseller list sits former Vice President Dick Cheney’s memoir in which he claims yet again that the Bush’s administration’s embrace of torture “worked” and kept the country safe.
I taught interrogation and the law of war for 18 years to U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marine interrogators. The truth—uncontroversial among those who actually interrogate suspects—is that torture is likely to produce faulty information because its victims will say anything to make the pain stop. American torture has killed or addled suspects who might have provided vital intelligence if interrogated humanely.
The debate over torture’s impact on security should not be limited to whether it produces useful information. There is a broader context, one that torture apologists ignore. As our interrogators consistently report, American torture has been a recruiting boon for Al Qaeda. At the same time, it has lowered America’s standing in the world, especially in the Middle East. Everyone everywhere can detect hypocrisy, and judges us for ours. The price we have paid for torture is incalculable.
These facts are inescapable—the truth is on the side of torture opponents—but there is no denying that supporters of torture have made headway. Polls show that support for torture among Americans has risen over the last few years and that a narrow majority now favors it in some cases. Support for torture is still considered a legitimate position, one side in a “complex” debate.
The persistent strength of the pro-torture position is a sign that misinformation and fear continue to obscure this debate, and that opponents of torture need to redouble our efforts to get the facts out. The death of Bin Laden and the waning of Al Qaeda’s influence provide an opportunity for us to do so.
But the creeping normalization of torture is also a result of the country’s failure to hold the perpetrators accountable. President Obama declared an intention to “turn the page” on torture, but as Dahlia Lithwick of Slate Magazine has written, he didn’t seem to understand that, “What was on that page would bleed through onto the next page and the page after that.” The passage of time alone will not heal the wounds left by the systematic abuse of detainees; the rule of law demands action.
Accountability for torturers—and justice for their victims—may seem unlikely at the moment, but there is simply no alternative if we are to relegate the Bush administration’s torture program to the past. Unless and until the country officially faces up to what our government did in the years after 9/11, then torture will continue to be seen as legitimate, a mere policy preference.
The sad truth is that ten years after 9-11, the “dark side” still looms.