All but the most recalcitrant hardliners (e.g., Dick Cheney) have expressed some measure of revulsion at the grisly CIA tactics described in the Senate "torture report" finally released this week after years of arduous haggling and obfuscating. It would be politically dimwitted not to at least mouth a few condemnatory clichés, given that the purveyor of the report, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, is one of the most reliably hawkish members of Congress in either party. Everyone from Ted Cruz to Barack Obama to John McCain has gone on the record as saying some variation of "torture is bad." OK, so now what?
Is there any reason to believe that institutional safeguards have been put in place to ensure that the next time there's some great terrorist-related crisis—involving, say, the Islamic State—politicians will remember their exhortations this week and resist the temptation to go above and beyond the law when seeking to punish "the enemy"? Is there any reason to suppose that the authoritarian impulses of the federal government have been put in check, and the national security apparatus will behave more mercifully from here on out? No, not really.
Politicians interested in portraying themselves as deeply committed to rectifying governmental misdeeds rarely exhibit any desire to thwart the momentum of the violent state. They just want to dress it up slightly differently. That's been the hallmark of the Obama years—move forward, not backward. Don't busy yourselves with actually prosecuting the perpetrators of a massive worldwide torture regime. Better to reserve the prosecutorial power of the state for the whistleblowers who bring these abuses to light. Politicians may be willing to criticize certain styles of state violence (especially when they were perpetrated by a previous administration), and even tinker with reforms at the margins, but marginal improvements still leave room for vast suffering.
It doesn't seem coincidental that a society that countenances jamming tubes up defenseless detainees' rectums—a practice that might be reasonably characterized as "rape"—might also countenance, say, a massive stop-and-frisk regime in New York City. Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly is even reported to have explicitly said that his intention was to "instill fear" in minorities as a behavioral modification strategy. Sensing a trend?
Police malfeasance and CIA torture share a common strand of DNA: Both are forms of state-sponsored violence borne out of irrational fears, whether of "terrorists" or of a minority-heavy underclass. Inhumane treatment is justified on the grounds that these people ultimately deserve it, and are hardly worthy of being fully considered "people" at all.
The principle that torture is wrong and everyone is entitled to a modicum of human rights is easy to recite from behind a computer screen when the stakes are nil—but in the real world, when applying this principle uniformly requires blunting the emotionally driven instinct to retaliate against perceived enemies, politicians who are against "torture" in the abstract inevitably waver. Thus we see leading Democrats sounding the right notes this week—we must hold police more accountable, we must hold torturers accountable—while doing virtually nothing that might realistically advance these goals. They won't jail the torturers. They won't de-militarize the police. The tendency to deploy state violence in response to perceived societal ills, whether at home or abroad, has not waned.
Inhumane treatment is justified on the grounds that these people ultimately deserve it and are hardly worthy of being fully considered "people" at all.
Even in the wake of the torture report, it's implausible that anything will be done to tangibly diminish the autonomy of the CIA, which has been committing horrendous acts since its inception and will carry on committing horrendous acts for the conceivable future. The safe, politically palatable course is to just zoom in on some of its most outlandish abuses, such as "rectal rehydration," and continue praising the CIA at an institutional level. Anyone who might suggest that this entity is foundationally flawed and ought to be abolished (as Ron Paul famously did in 2007) still gets laughed out of the room and deemed a loon.
Q: What keeps this program from happening again in another crisis? Brennan:
— Matt Apuzzo (@mattapuzzo)December 11, 2014
Similarly, plenty of politicians, notably New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, have said auspicious things with respect to police reform: "Black lives matter" and so forth. But precious few have shown any inclination to directly challenge law enforcement lobbyists. As much as street protests might raise public consciousness, elected officials and the judiciary must buck the status quo in order for anything to truly change.
This is why it's always perilous to endow government actors with additional powers; they will almost never relinquish them, and these powers will likely only expand as bureaucracies and political interests become entrenched. Bet your bottom dollar: US intelligence agencies will continue to do heinous things around the globe and then lie about them; police departments will continue to give guns to cops who have no business exerting lethal force.
We'll know that "torture" has been truly repudiated in this country when torturous conditions cease to be imposed on the most vulnerable, demonized, and maligned. That will require summoning the political will to meaningfully restrict the power of agencies ostensibly charged with keeping us secure, from the CIA on down to your local police department. Change on this scale is feasible only if Americans are willing to give up a little bit of comfort and acquire a little bit of empathy—which could be asking too much.
Follow Michael Tracey on Twitter.