America – Nobody Does It Better!


April 17, 2009 by J. Madson

How to Torture, American Style – Nobody Does it Better!

So the OLC memos are out and they reveal what many of us already suspected. What I found insightful although not novel or unexpected was the manner in which they could write with a straight face that techniques when used by other governments are torture are legal and correct when used by the United States? Of course this is the absurd logic that every torturing regime and nation guilty of crimes has used: we are different, we are justified, we have a higher purpose, and we are just good guys who really don’t want to do this. There is always some rational and American Exceptionalism is just another way of saying things are evil for everyone “Except” US.

So here we find legal professionals who know that we are engaging in torture:

But somehow they have to conclude otherwise, so they write page after mind-numbing page of sterile legal language designed to justify authorizing it anyway. It’s not torture if the victim survives it intact. It’s not against the law if it takes place outside the United States. Waterboarding is OK as long as it isn’t performed more than twice in a 24-hour period. Sleep deprivation of shackled prisoners for seven days at a time is permissible as long as the victim’s diaper is changed frequently. And on and on and on.

as one commentator mentioned

The phrase “banality of evil” is very overused, I realized. But this is a case where it applies. Bybee writes as just another corporate-style lawyer finding a legal rationale for his client to do what he wants to do. Happens every day, no big deal. Except that he’s writing memos justifying using techniques that have been known to be torture since at least the Spanish Inquisition.

It is called “a dry, legalistic series of justifications for acts of barbaric cruelty.” We get nuggets like this one where a variety of techniques used by the US government are described as techniques condemned by the United States as torture. Nations and techniques are listed but we are assured in the end that it is not torture by us because we are more careful about how we do it, we really believe it might work, and we try hard not to cause severe and lasting damage.


As Greenwald notes:

“They explicitly recognized that the techniques they were authorizing were ones that we condemned other countries for using — including as “torture” — but nonetheless approved them, explicitly saying that the standards we impose on others do not bind us in any way.”

The second highlight demonstrates the logic of American exceptionalism. Sure we torture but we don’t really mean it. If you torture people but you don’t mean it then its not torture. The list could go on. Sure we massacred native americans but manifest destiny. Sure we enslaved and tortured african slaves but the economy… and africa sucks you know. they should be thankful. Sure we invade foreign nations to prop up our economic lusts and greed but we stand for freedom, democracy, etc

Klein, from politico, gives us this gem “This is an extremely serious claim in the intelligence culture, where some operators are asked to behave extra-legally for the greater good of the nation.”

That’s what government crimes are called in the eyes of our press corps: they’re just acting “extra-legally” — and not just “extra-legally,” but “for the greater good of the nation.” You should try that at home. Go rob a bank and when the police try to arrest you, just tell them: “I was just making an extra-legal withdrawal; what’s the problem”? That’s also how the media (and Democrats) constantly talked about Bush’s illegal spying on Americans. What he did was never a “crime” or even “illegal” (even though the law criminalizes the very conduct he got caught engaging in with prison terms and fines); at worst, it was: “he was engaged in eavesdropping in circumvention of the FISA framework.” That works, too, if you want to rob a bank: “I was just making a withdrawal in circumvention of the banking regulatory framework.” – Greenwald

Sullivan does a good job of showing how two-faced we are when it comes to the issue of torture:

Imagine if an American operative out of uniform were captured by the Iranians tomorrow. Imagine he were put into a coffin for hours with no light and barely enough air to breathe, imagine if he were then removed and smashed against a plywood wall by a towel tied around his neck thirty times, imagine if he were then kept awake for eleven days in a row, then kept in a cell frozen to hypothermia levels, and then waterboarded multiple times, after which he confessed to being a spy trying to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Would you believe that intelligence?…Would you believe both that he wasn’t tortured and that the information he gave was reliable? That is what an otherwise intelligent human being is asking us to do not just in one case but in hundreds, in many of which the prisoner actually died under interrogation.

Would he also insist that what was done to the prisoner, however awful, could not be called torture under American law and the Geneva Conventions? Now imagine that the International Red Cross eventually got access to the prisoner and judged his treatment unequivocally torture; and that the Iranians claimed that since they merely applied “an alternative set of procedures” in order to gain critical intelligence that might have prevented a nuclear accident or sabotage, and remain in compliance with international treaties.

My fear is that nothing will occur. We read this from Bradbury’s memo, where he told torturers:

Given the paucity of relevant precedent and the subjective nature of the inquiry, however, we cannot predict with confidence that a court would agree with this conclusion [i.e., the green light for heinous tortures].

But Bradbury also realized that americans just dont care enough about the rule of law

…the question [of prosecution for the torture techniques] is unlikely to be subject to judicial inquiry.


5 thoughts on “America – Nobody Does It Better!

  1. Grégoire says:

    Thanks very much for posting this. It’s nice to have it broken down by someone into plain language that every(wo)man (like myself) can understand.

    One of the most disturbing aspects of all this is President Obama giving a *pass* to the Bush administration, going so far as to “promise no prosecutions”.

    What the neo-cons were doing, I believe, was not just indulging in illegal activity, but setting a precedent for the future. In refusing to investigate the criminal aspect of these revelations, the Obama administration becomes a tacit accomplice in the evil that was done and the crimes committed, and is allowing some future administration to return to denying people their humanity with the assurance that they will be allowed to *slide* in the future. That’s the most frightening aspect of all this.

  2. Mike IsBell says:

    As to the President’s ‘pass’ to the Bushistas – The right wingers still hold strategic ground politically and can cause damage to the body politic. Similar to the speculators and money men holding us hostage and demanding payments (aka stimulus package), acceding to the spy-guys demands for clemency may prevent harm to the country.

    I think the President is more focused now on healing the country than on payback.

  3. Natalie says:

    It is ridiculous that Obama is not going to prosecute those that created the legal framework for and carried out these atrocities. Americans would never stand for another nation letting the culpable people off the hook if the victims were one Americans. Why is it okay for us to set such a different standard of justice and life for ourselves? Are American lives worth more than others?

    Some seem to think so. Very few people are questioning, at least, that the life of one American was worth the life of more than three Somalians.

    I am extremely disappointed in and distrustful of Obama. His extreme reticence to create an absolute legal barrier against future use of torture and his refusal to prosecute these criminals is not what I want to be hearing.

    I hope the Hague takes over and puts these people on trial for war crimes.

  4. Ron Madson says:


    In theory the DOJ is independent and should proceed with or without Obama’s blessings in prosecuting these war crimes. The reality, however, is that it is rare for appointees (unless appointed to Supreme Court) to get ahead of their master. We prosecuted Watergate but stopped well short of the REAL war crimes committed by Kissinger and Nixon that led to millions of deaths and misery based on their lies, ambition and corruption. Had they been severely prosecuted for war crimes our nation could have seen what it means to rule with blood and horror and face our national sins. But again, we stopped well short and then thirty years later we are about to do the same damn thing—just let it go because it might hurt our gross national consumption. I only wish Obama had been a closet Jeremiah Wright. This is deja vu for those of us around post watergate.

  5. Grégoire says:

    Dear Natalie, Ron, J. et. al.:

    Spanish prosecutors will seek criminal charges against Alberto Gonzales and five high-ranking Bush administration officials for sanctioning torture at Guantánamo.

    Maybe it’s symbolic, but it’s a good start, and perhaps will shame someone here into doing something.

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