William T. Cavanaugh

Making America Feel Better (William T. Cavanaugh)


When the Senate issued its report on CIA torture in December of 2014, the House Intelligence Committee chairman—Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan—questioned the wisdom of releasing the report, warning that the report’s release would have dire consequences for the United States. Moving forward, he suggested that politicians needed to help the CIA talk differently about its activities.

Ever since the “War on Terror” began over a decade ago, but especially in recent months after the release of the Senate Report on Torture in December, America and her allies have been engaged in often heated debate and soul-searching over the practice of torture. Following important discussions on the issue at this year’s Society of Christian Ethics annual meeting,Political Theology Today has invited a range of scholars in the fields of political theology and Christian Ethics to explore the issue

When the Senate issued its report on CIA torture in December of 2014, the House Intelligence Committee chairman—Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan—questioned the wisdom of releasing the report, warning that the report’s release would have dire consequences for the United States.  Moving forward, he suggested that politicians needed to help the CIA talk differently about its activities.  “For this particular report about something that happened seven, eight, nine, ten years ago, we forget to talk about all the fantastic work that these very dedicated men and women have been doing, day in and day out, without the ability, or with the ability to follow the law and do it appropriately,” Rogers said. “We should talk about that. We should tell those stories about what they’re doing to keep America safe. I think it’ll make America feel better about who they are and what they’re doing.”

Making America feel better is, I think, the key to understanding both the CIA’s torture program and the reaction to the report about the program.

The report tells the story of Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda operative waterboarded 83 times by the CIA.  The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss, cites Zubaydah’s case as evidence that the report is wrong to conclude that no actionable intelligence was gained through torture.  Chambliss says many intelligence reports were written based on information Zubaydah provided, and  “Just common sense and logic would tell you some of those reports were the result of statements that Abu Zubaydah made after he went through the EIT [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] program.”  According to the Senate report, however, the FBI got this intelligence out of Abu Zubaydah by traditional interrogation.  Only later was he handed over to the CIA, who started torturing him forty-seven days after coming into their custody.  The CIA was convinced that he was withholding what they really needed: information about an impending attack.  The eighty-second and eighty-third waterboarding sessions of Abu Zubaydah were performed on the direct orders of CIA headquarters over the objections of the interrogators, who had concluded that he had nothing to offer.

As Hugh Eakin puts it in an interview with Mark Danner, “They have to torture Abu Zubaydah so that he will reveal a ‘ticking time bomb,’ and they need that revelation to justify the use of torture.  And the use of torture is based on the fact that he hasn’t revealed any such plot.”  The CIA needed to prove its own usefulness and justify its own methods by thwarting an attack they were convinced was coming.  Torture, as Danner puts it, was a way for the CIA to alleviate its own anxiety.

Torture is not so much about getting information unattainable by ordinary interrogation.  It is about making us feel better.  The fierce reaction to the Senate report makes this clear.  Without offering substantive rebuttals—or in some cases even reading the report—critics insisted that actionable intelligence was produced.  It just had to be.

Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Saxby Chambliss issued a statement saying “we are opposed to this study and believe it will present serious consequences for U.S. national security. Regardless of what one’s opinions may be on these issues,the study by Senate Democrats is an ideologically motivated and distorted recounting of historical events.”  The “opinions” they disregard is an apparent reference to any debate over whether torture is right or wrong, regardless of whether or not it produces intelligence.  The question of right or wrong has been removed from the debate.  The only question on the table is about national security.  Are we more secure with or without torture?  Are we more secure with or without the release of the torture report?

Even CIA Director John Brennan, who insisted that actionable intelligence was obtained by “enhanced interrogation techniques,” said that the answer to the question of whether such information could have been obtained without such techniques is “unknowable.”  It is not a matter of knowledge; it is a matter of belief.  People believe in torture.  There is something comforting in knowing that there is someone out there who is watching over us and our enemies, and is willing to use exceptional measures to keep us safe.  We are the exceptional nation, the only one that can be trusted to use exceptional measures. People used to hope for protection and security from God, but the nation-state—especially its military and security apparatus—is now in whom we more immediately trust.  I am not simply being ironic here.  There is a serious theological issue at stake.  Carl Schmitt was right to intuit that in modernity many of the attributes of God have been transferred over to the putatively secular nation-state, which can only properly be understood through a theological lens.

At the same time that people feel better believing that torture keeps us safe, many people simultaneously feel that talking about torture makes us less safe.  Many prominent Republicans—and some Democrats—warned that releasing the report would produce a violent backlash, warnings that now appear groundless.  The warnings, though, bespeak a deeper anxiety about the use of torture.  American exceptionalism insists both that we must have torture in our toolkit and that we are above the use of torture.  George W. Bush flatly declared “We do not torture” while simultaneously defending its use by his government.  This striptease is played out in the use of euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Whatever government agencies do is redefined as “not torture.”  Even the Senate report largely avoids using the t-word.  While torture is important for making us feel better, we prefer to tell more comforting stories about, as Mike Rogers puts it, “all the fantastic work that these very dedicated men and women have been doing.”  Despite the fact that the CIA repeatedly lied about the torture program to the White House and Congress and admitted hacking into Senate staffers’ computers to obstruct the Senate’s investigation, the only person who has gone to jail in connection with the program is the whistleblower who exposed the program back in 2007, ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou.  He was prosecuted by the Obama administration, whose Department of Justice has not only refused to bring charges against CIA agents involved in the torture program and its cover-up, but has also argued that the rationale for not bringing charges should be kept secret because “disclosing them could affect the candor of law enforcement deliberations about whether to bring criminal charges.”

Torture is a grave evil, and it must be brought into the light of day and discussed frankly and openly if it is not to happen again. The public discussion, however, cannot be based solely on arguments about whether or not torture works to produce actionable intelligence.  We need to have a broader and more interesting conversation about the way that torture makes us feel, the role that torture plays in the American social imagination.  And such a discussion cannot avoid being theological.  We need to recognize the ways that sovereignty and security have migrated from God to the nation-state.  Followers of a crucified Jesus Christ especially need to recognize that putting our trust in a security apparatus that tortures is diametrically opposed to putting our trust in a tortured God.

William T. Cavanaugh is Director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology and Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University.  His degrees are from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke Universities.  He is the author of five books and editor of two more.

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