Last Thursday, Gina Haspel was confirmed as the director of the CIA after a nomination process fraught with questions about her complicity in destroying tapes of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. Democratic senators hemmed and hawed, first displaying support, then retracting it as public opinion ebbed and flowed and questions began to pile up. When it came down to the vote, however, six Democrats broke ranks and voted to confirm, saying that while they did not approve of Haspel’s earlier actions, they were confident that she would no longer partake in such indecorous actions as torture and obstruction of justice. They trusted her to be a guiding hand for the CIA. Another senator cited the lack of accountability for torturers and their enablers, saying that her actions must be held to a “similar standard as previous nominees:” that is to say, none. Confronted with a staggering record of moral apathy, the Democrats and their colleagues choose the easiest option every time: why deal with the weight of the past when it is so crushing and so incriminating?
The Democrats who voted to enable this should feel ashamed. The fact that they do not, and that their statements only show hesitance with regards to public reaction, is as big an indictment as any. They are not capable of feeling the shame that they should when confronted with our country’s horrifying record of terror. Two of the Democrats who voted to confirm Haspel are members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Sens. Manchin and Warner) so supposedly, they are more informed than their colleagues about the actions that the CIA perpetrates in our name. And yet, when brought face to face with the declassified, uncensored truth, they turn away. It hurts their eyes.
There are around 500 pages released of the torture report, out of a total of six thousand. They detail horrifying abuses and a culture of terror. To ignore what the CIA has done is no way to expiate our national sin. There are hundreds of pages about the drowning and resuscitation of innocents, the beatings, the rapes. Here is everything the CIA did in your name and said it was for you. Here is every act of violence held up as an act of service. Here are the lives destroyed, the families shattered, the peaces ruined. Here is the sick, stinking, rotten mess of our nation’s soul, squirming under scrutiny like an animal unaccustomed to the light. Here is our national shame, our American tar pit.
Today, it is easy for pundits to pretend that the lack of consequences for torture is normal. They are right. Our inaction in the face of our own staggering abuses is an American tradition. Where these critics go wrong is the pretense that it is somehow bizarre or abnormal to plead for consequences. There were numerous calls for prosecution after the release of the torture report. The UN issued statements exhorting American officials to bring these people to justice, since their identities were known to the Committee members. They made it clear that failing to prosecute was a violation of international law: “The UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances require States to prosecute acts of torture and enforced disappearance where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction. States are not free to maintain or permit impunity for these grave crimes.” They also noted that the principle of universal jurisdiction applies: any other country that feels they have sufficient grounds can legally apprehend these perpetrators if they set foot on their soil.
However, the perpetrators should have been named, rooted out, and subject to prosecution at our own behest. Barack Obama dealt a heavy blow to the potential for justice from the Bush administration when he essentially granted amnesty to these criminals. Obama characterized the calls for justice as merely a way to “refight old arguments” and expressed the wish that these crimes be left to the past. His belief was that the report was enough: no further action needed to be taken. Due to his faith in the deterring nature of the report and his conviction that this would not happen again, Obama made no steps to ensure that it would not. The common argument is that Obama was simply doing what his predecessors did: indulging in our American exceptionalism, where previous abuses are memory-holed by each successive administration in the service of decorum in continuity. This is not a worthy excuse, especially today, when we can plainly see how the failure to deal with these officials has led to their further insinuation into the ranks and levers of power.
Another common criticism is that if we were to start applying the standards so many other countries abide by, “our guys” might get in trouble. Future Republicans could use it as a weapon against future Democrats. Tough luck. Someone has to break the cycle of abuse, and set a standard. Creating a precedent of repercussions serves as a warning to all. If “our side” does not want to face consequences for breaking the law, then it behooves them to abide by it. If the Democrats, who claim to adhere to a higher standard, do not have the political will or moral fortitude to behave better, they deserve the irrelevance they will be relegated to.
It is not as if nothing could be done. There are several political solutions to this humanitarian crisis. The Senate could finally ratify the Rome Statute and bring the United States under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. An enterprising senator could enter the torture report and similar documentation into the congressional record, as Mike Gravel courageously did with the Pentagon Papers. In fact, Gravel himself called for this in 2014. Or, politicians could play an important role in normalizing the idea of consequences for crimes against humanity. One way would be to drop the phrase “enhanced interrogation,” which carries water for our intelligence services every time it is used. It is a term of art meant to exalt base brutality into a refined technique. Not only is reckoning with this legacy the right thing to do, it is in everyone’s best interest that these people are brought to justice. In 2014, the UN noted that America’s insistence on standing apart from the strictures of international law affected everyone else, because the “example set by the United States on the use of torture has been a big drawback in the fight against such practice in many other countries throughout the world.” If one nation can take a get out of jail free card, others will claim the same right. According to that same UN representative, “many states either implicitly or explicitly tell you: ‘Why look at us? If the U.S. tortures, why can’t we do it?’”
People who can read the Senate torture report, with its myriad horrors and clinical delineation of human evil, and can move forward, merely say, “we tortured some folks,” and then willfully look ahead, have chosen to ignore the screaming of their conscience in pursuit of a higher political goal, ignoring their basic moral obligation. Their equivocation about crimes against humanity is appalling. Until we learn to reckon with our past, mete out justice, and provide recompense, this sickness will continue and our wounds will never heal.
Emma Steiner is an MA candidate in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service’s Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies graduate program.