Torture and the treason of intellectuals

Torture and the treason of intellectuals
A CIA report on torture was just the tip of the iceberg. That tools employed by dictators is widely accepted among the US political class coincides with continued imperialist notions of civilization and barbarism.
8 min read
22 Dec, 2014
Torture becomes easier in a context where Muslims are widely denigrated [AFP]

In a blunt and uncompromising editorial, the New York Times pulled no punches about what the US Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA illegal detention, abuse and torture of prisoners actually means.

"The jailers and torturers," the editorial declared, "acted on orders that descended from President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, CIA chief George Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among others. They justified their action with twisted legal memos arguing that torture was not torture when the president wanted to do it." 

     It is this vicious distortion of ethical principles that is at the heart of the matter.

Under ideal circumstances this one single sentence should suffice as to who are chiefly responsible for such heinous and systematic crimes against humanity, hold them responsible, and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. 

But our world is not ideal. It is real. Even when we learn that in fact "the CIA didn't just torture, it experimented on human beings", still there is no particular place where the proverbial buck stops and people are held accountable for these crimes. There is a circularity to this sense of responsibility that freely shifts from one moving target to another. 

Justifying torture

"Mock executions, sleep deprivation, rectal feeding," the headlines on the homepage of CNN screamed in bold and large fonts the day the US Senate report on CIA tortures were released. "Detainees kept awake for 180 hours."

What were these blaring headlines supposed to mean? The collective outrage of a nation at the official acknowledgement of the depth of moral depravity to which it has in fact fallen? 

You do not have to live in the US to sense the avalanche of alarming fonts intimating editorial outrage at the US Senate report about CIA tortures. But blaming an acronym (the CIA) is useless. What is at issue is a larger domain of public discourse about the ethics of responsibility of society at large. The question is by whom and what authority was the culture of torture made acceptable in the US, normative in fact, legal, even moral. 

It is not just the US president and his cabinet, not even an unnamed CIA female agent (dubbed "the Queen of Torture") who is reported to have been at the heart of the Senate report, who are exclusively at fault here. The issue, especially for those of us who have lived the horrors of the post-9/11 US political culture is much deeper. 

To get to the bottom of the consistent and systematic normalisation of the culture of torture in the US, it is far more critical to name people like the American legal scholar Alan Dershowitz and the Canadian human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff for the crucial roles they have played in making torture acceptable - not just legal, but in fact a moral duty. That is where the crust of the terror lies.  It is because of people like Dershowitz and Ignatieff that the people who were doing the torturing were assured that they are doing something not just legal but in fact patriotic, noble, honorable. It is this vicious distortion of ethical principles that is at the heart of the matter. 

Ever since 9/11, Alan Dershowitz has argued for what he casually calls "torture warrants". Upon which warrant, he then proposes "nonlethal torture, say, a sterilised needle underneath the nail", which even he confesses "would violate the Geneva Accords, but you know, countries all over the world violate the Geneva Accords". 

To protect himself from ignominy, when the Senate report was released he then sought to justify his position: "Public opinion polls showed a vast majority of Americans supporting the use of enhanced interrogation techniques if it would stop a terrorist attack. Even President Bill Clinton got on NPR and said if there were ever a ticking bomb situation, he would do whatever he had to do." 

Whatever bogus "poll" Dershowitz might have in mind, the verifiable fact is that by 15 February 2003 masses of Americans (just like millions of people around the globe) in sub-freezing temperature poured into their streets protesting against the looming war on Iraq in retaliation for 9/11. I know this for a fact for fortunately I was one of them. 

Equally verifiable fact is that then Senator Obama’s anti-war speech, which he delivered in October 2002, even before that anti-war demonstration in February 2003, became perhaps the single most important factor in his election as the US president in 2008. I know that for a fact for unfortunately I was one of those who for this reason voted for him. 

It is a pure act of charlatanism to disregard these historical facts and claim a ludicrous "poll" as the indications that "Americans" concurred with Dershowitz on torturing people. Like all other Zionists, Dershowitz has his own delusional version of history, one that ties not just the US government but the American people to the colonial interests of his favourite settler colony. 

The other champion of torture soon after 9/11 was Michael Ignatieff, at the time "the Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy and faculty director of the Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy" no less. He spoke openly of "preventive detention", of "putting hot iron to someone’s flesh" and even "targeted assassination" - positions he later expanded into a book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2005). Human rights indeed!    

What do criminal adventurers like Osama bin Laden and now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi do? They justify heinous crimes in the name of a religious ideology. What do Alan Dershowitz and Michael Ignatieff do? They justify heinous crimes in legal and moral terms, taken and twisted straight out of liberalism, in fact from the very heart of the human rights discourse. 

The responsibility of intellectuals

Against the very grain of such warmongering charlatanism, shines a simple truth. It is the moral obligation of any intellectual with a public forum to be as a matter of principle opposed to any systematic machinery of abusive state power - anywhere in the world. It is an unnatural and entirely bizarre fact that in the US and its satellite Zionist settler colony intellectuals are actually on the side of power. By no means is this malady exclusive to the US and Israel. But in these two countries they are the norm, people with the widest possible fora and lucrative consequences - and the exceptions are those systematically marginalised voices who oppose the abusive power of the state. 

What is needed is public (if not legal) accountability of people like Alan Dershowitz and Michael Ignatieff - the public scrutiny of the self-righteous ease and barefaced banality with which they have justified torturing people in legal and even moral terms. There is no trace of shame in the propaganda officers of a shameless imperialism, and public shame in particular is an absolute civic responsibility toward which such opportunist justifiers of sub-human indecency have never been subjected. They come out, they do their mischief, and out they go hiding in their ignominy, or worse: they come out and defend their banality. 

     Muslims are collectively racialised and criminalised not for having done something wrong but for just being who they are.

But people like Dershowitz and Ignatieff are to encourage torture under a much wider framework in which Muslims are collectively racialised and criminalised not for having done something wrong but for just being who they are: Muslim. In a context in which being a Muslim is understood as a sign of barbarity and malice, it is much easier to torture Muslims suspected of any crime. 

These people would not have been able to encourage criminal behaviours with impunity were it not for the active environment of demonisation of Muslims systematically performed by people all the way from comedians like Bill Maher and New Atheists like Sam Harries to mass murderers like Anders Breivik, elected officials like Michelle Buchman, and propagandist opportunists like Pamela Geller.

As anti-Semitism was in old Europe, Islamophobia is now deeply rooted and widely displayed in the US and Europe.  Under these circumstances not just the torture of Muslims suspected of terrorism but the systematic harassment of ordinary Muslims is a matter of routine practice. 

A much wider pathology

As Chris Hedges once put it, characterising this type of intellectuals: "The power elite, especially the liberal elite, has always been willing to sacrifice integrity and truth for power, personal advancement, foundation grants, awards, tenured professorships, columns, book contracts, television appearances, generous lecture fees and social status. They know what they need to say. They know which ideology they have to serve." 

To be sure, these sorts of compromised intellectuals are not exclusive to the US, or to the right wing conservatives.  Right now there are some top-notch Egyptian left and liberal intellectuals who are squarely siding with the military junta led by General Sisi who just staged a coup against a democratically elected president. 

In Iran soon after the Islamist takeover of the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 a group of power mongering careerists who called themselves "religious intellectuals" became the intelligence arm of the militant Islamists. They helped consolidate the ideological foregrounding of the violent takeover of a worldly revolution. They were instrumental in university purges and successive cultural revolutions, before they too were discarded and forced into exile in US and Europe by power mongers even more vicious than they. 

What is common among these intellectuals is not their being left or right, Jews, Christians, or Muslims. It is a lack of political courage and moral imagination, consistently degenerating into pathological siding with power that unites them all. 

In Nazi Germany, leading philosophers and legal theorist like Martin Heidegger and Karl Schmitt were of the same sort. Against these sell-outs we of course have the shining tradition of noble souls like the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi, or Iranian poet and playwright Said Soltanpour - shining intellects who opted to end their own lives, or march in front of firing squads, rather than succumb to the banality of evil that the likes of Dershowitz and Ignatieff serve. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.