Torture is about acts: the blow to the head, the scream in the ear, the scar-free injuries whose diagnosis has become an international medical subspecialty. But torture is also very much about words: the whispered or shouted questions of the interrogator; the muddled confession of the prisoner; the too rarely tested language of laws protecting prisoners from "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment.
Consider just two words: "command responsibility." Those words stand among the most resolutely enduring principles established after World War II by the Nuremberg Tribunals. Today they pose a special threat to President Bush, Vice President Cheney and the other officials who actively promote what Secretary of State Rice, in Germany, insisted the Administration "does not authorize or condone." To carry out physically and psychically brutal interrogations outside all international norms has required the Administration to corrupt the ordinary meaning of language itself. "We do not torture" (Bush). "What we do does not come close to torture" (Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss). Such denials continue despite twelve reports from the Defense Department documenting the opposite — never mind Congressional testimony, journalistic investigations and NGO reports making common knowledge of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, near-fatal beatings and mock executions.
Indeed, there is no point in arguing about whether U.S. policy condones cruel, degrading or torturous treatment of prisoners. Practices authorized by Rumsfeld on a small scale in Afghanistan have now metastasized into a worldwide network of prisons, detention centers and surrogates ranging from private contractors to authoritarian foreign governments. What Rice defended to European critics — and what has Cheney at loggerheads with John McCain — is not merely a desire to take the gloves off in the occasional back room in Bagram or Baghdad, as the Administration's apologists insist. Rather, it is a wide-ranging conspiracy to facilitate torture, in which many sectors of American society are now implicated. The new torture complex — centered in the executive branch of the government but with tentacles throughout the country — is the subject of this special issue, which spotlights both collusion and resistance in key American institutions: the military, the law, medicine, media, the academy.
The Administration's adherence to systematic torture and extralegal imprisonment not only accelerates the race to the bottom in human rights; it is even tying anti-terrorism policy in knots. Take the case of José Padilla, the U.S. citizen imprisoned as an enemy combatant for his supposed participation in a "dirty bomb" plot. In November the Administration finally indicted Padilla on charges unrelated to any dirty bomb. Why? At least in part because Padilla was arrested on the basis of information extracted from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whose interrogation included waterboarding. The case is a colossal failure in terms both moral and pragmatic: Either Padilla was never part of a bomb plot, in which case Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's original statement demonstrates the unreliability of confessions obtained under torture, or effective anti-terrorism prosecution was undermined by reliance on illegal methods.
The question is not whether the United States instigates torture but how to put this evil genie back in the bottle. The first step is to confront the culture of denial. Where, for instance, are Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah? It has now been two years since those al Qaeda operatives were "disappeared" into the netherworld of CIA "black sites." It is time to puncture the secrecy bubble, to ascertain the whereabouts of these men and charge them criminally for September 11. Human Rights Watch has identified twenty-four additional "ghost detainees." So long as Congress gives implicit permission to keep such detainees under wraps, the principles that facilitate torture are kept alive.