Color Me Naive: Torture Debate Gave Me A Surprise Political Education

(An earlier cartoon on bipartisan acquiesce on torture, 3/19/18.)

“We can’t allow ourselves to descend down the rabbit hole of unbridled partisanship for partisan sake.”
— Mike Quigley

By Mark L. Taylor
The Commoner Call (5/21/18)

To begin, I must plead guilty.

I have long opposed the role of torture in American policy. Since adolescence I have written letters, published cartoons (above), joined the ACLU, dutifully sent donations off to human rights groups, signed an endless stream of petitions and paid attention to the bipartisan torture policies of American foreign policy, which has often meant reading personal accounts that have kept me up at night.

But it has not been enough. I should have done more. I own my chunk of the collective guilt for the perpetuation of our state sanctioned torture. We citizens have failed to demand the change that is needed to make torture illegal in foreign and domestic policy in military, intelligence and domestic agencies of the U.S government.

The first assault on my naive belief that the U.S. was the enemy of torture came with the Vietnam War scandal Operation Phoenix a joint military/CIA terror and torture program. Most recently Americans were shocked to hear of the torture and abuse at the U.S. army-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. We also heard of torture and deaths at the American military Bagram Theater Internment Center in Afghanistan. (Such a lovely civilized word — “theater” — to describe state-sanctioned horror.)

The CIA’s favorite technique — waterboarding — has a history going back 500 years to the Spanish Inquisition. After World War II Japanese soldiers were tried for war crimes for waterboarding captured American soldiers and air men.

By the Vietnam years American forces were regularly using waterboarding. The torture technique was carried on at CIA “black sites” where rendition (kidnap) victims — many who were completely innocent — were held and tortured in a variety of monstrous ways during the Cheney/Bush wars.

As with all techniques and technology of war and empire building, waterboarding eventually migrated back into domestic law enforcement. In one case a man was beaten with a blackjack and waterboarded by county deputies because they suspected he had stolen a deputy’s tractor.

As has been shown by police, FBI and intel interrogation experts, torture isn’t reliable. If someone is being held down and drowned or beat, or forced into painful stress positions for hours, or raped they well say whatever the torturers want.



All this is of current interest to me after I posted an item to several liberal/left Facebook pages last week condemning the democratic party for not challenging dem senators for signing on to support Trump’s nomination of CIA agent Gina Haspel to head up the agency. During the Cheney/Bush reign Haspel ran an agency black site in Thailand where waterboarding and possibly other torture techniques were used. Additionally, she destroyed video tape evidence of the crimes.

Initially, it sounded like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, was going to be the only dem to support Haspel. Then it was two. Then three. Then four. Then five and finally six democratic senate votes fell in line to support Trump’s resident torturer.

Meanwhile republican senators Rand Paul and John McCain — an expert through firsthand experience on the issue of torture — steadfastly refused to support the nomination. In the final vote Arizona republican Sen. Jeff Flake joined Paul and voted against the nomination. McCain couldn’t cast a vote because he is home being treated for cancer.

The only CIA documents declassified for the Senate Intelligence Committee were positive. Hey, no problem here, move along, suckers. The media played its part, usually describing waterboarding with the Orwellian descriptor “enhanced interrogation.” There is nothing “enhanced” about torture; it is different in kind. Interrogation is one thing and torture another.

I was asked if I wanted dem office holders to have to hold to litmus tests? On torture? Oh, hell yes. When it comes to torture, it is black or white; there are no shades of gray. There is no middle ground. There is no excuse. There is no way to call a moral cancer a pimple on the body politic.

Democratic noodle Sen. Mark Warner said he had a letter and personal reassurances from Haspel that she would not allow a return to past torture. She never directly stated that in the hearings. But, hey, we know the CIA never lies, right. Right? 

Well, the reaction of many good liberals to my condemnation of the silence of the democratic party was a fair degree of hostility and name calling. I was accused of wanting the dems to walk in “lockstep” like the republicans. In a sentimental salute to 1950’s McCarthyism camp I was told I would only be happy once the “Politburo” was calling all the shots.

I was advised that I was naive; politicians need to have flexibility; there are, after all, subtle political cards to be played. It was explained to me that I was simple minded; a child at play in important adult business. Who was I to question our esteemed party elders at a time of Trumputin gangsterism? Unity, not morality, was the coin of the realm.

One liberal critic dismissed me as being one of those people not to be listened to.

Having been in the midst of politics for over 50 years, I don’t usually think of myself as politically naive but I must admit on this issue of challenging democratic party acquiescence to torture I was gob smacked. I tried to explain my concerns and reasoning, noting that a vote supporting torture is different in kind — it is not like a wonky disagreement over some budget item or going soft on a banking regulation. Those issues usually come in degrees of gray. Not so torture.

I was asked if I really wanted dem office holders to have to hold to litmus tests?

On torture? Oh, hell yes!

When it comes to torture, it is black or white; there are no shades of gray. There is no middle ground. There is no excuse. There is no way to call a moral cancer a pimple on the body politic.

Silence = Consent

With the betrayal of the six senators and the cowardly, morally vacant silence of the national party the democrats made U.S. torture officially bipartisan. Like it or not — and, boy, there were many who didn’t like to hear it — the dems have put the party’s stamp of approval on the old waterboard. They and their pals across the aisle now own torture and all the abuses, horrors and diplomatic and military messes to follow.

But you say, you don’t believe we will go back to torturing because Sen. Warner got a secret Valentine from Gina Haspel. Hmm, give me a call, I’ve got a dandy submerged houseboat I’d like to sell you. Really, I’ll give you a good deal. Honest.

As democracies slide into authoritarianism there is an unfolding normalization of what once was seen as bizarre, cruel and grotesque. As Jews were expected to wear a Star of David armband in Weimar Germany it became normal as a psychic numbing spread through society. Oh, waterboarding? Well at least the are not cutting off limbs … yet.

By it’s silence, the democratic party has now helped normalize torture for Trump and the stain of moral numbing spreads across the fascist Homeland. And just as surely, the use of torture by waterboard and other methods will spread through domestic law enforcement and society.

In fact, it already has.

Report from the homeland

You may have seen the story last week of the California couple arrested for waterboarding their ten children. A day or two later I did a Google search to find the story to include in the FB debate. What I found was frightening evidence of the normalization and moral numbing of torture already underway across the country. There was the mom arraigned for waterboarding her 5 year-old. And there were the Pennsylvania parents on the run after waterboarding their child.

There was the Missouri mom sentenced to 78 years in prison for waterboarding her three children. A Texas mom and her boyfriend were arrested for tying a rope around her 13 year-old son’s genitals and waterboarding him. A Montana man was placed on probation (probation!!?) for waterboarding his two kids … and two neighbor kids. Over in Delaware we have the former pediatrician accused of repeatedly waterboarding his companion’s 12 year-old daughter.

A parenting guide now advises parents on how to use ‘verbal waterboarding’ to get the truth out of your mouthy teenager. And for parents with a bit of an offbeat sense of humor there is the “My Kid Waterboarded Your Honor Student” bumper sticker.

And there was the high school wrestling team that appeared to have used some form of waterboarding as a hazing. Meanwhile at Western Carolina University the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity was suspended after police launched an investigation into allegations of assault and waterboarding.

I could go on but my stomach — and hopefully yours — has had enough.

That, my friends is normalization and psychic numbing. Has the democratic party through their silence caused any of this, or directly encouraged it? No, but it has contributed to the normalization and psychic numbing that makes this kind of insanity more likely. When political leaders and parties stand mute on something as basic as torture it is a green light to cruelty.

If democrats and liberals and progressives do not take a strong, clear, consistent stand against torture who will? The republicans? Gina Haspel?

A political party is known not just for what it stands for but for what it doesn’t stand for and what positions a party takes are owned by its silent members. The inability of many liberal/progressives to see the uniqueness of torture and be willing to stand up to the party in the Haspel controversy is as disturbing as it is disheartening. Some fret that we can’t do that in the midst of the Trump crisis. But that is the exact time — the moment of crisis — to stand on moral principle.

“A lot of lip service gets paid to being honest, but no one really wants to hear it unless what’s being said is the party line.” ― Colin Quinn


In discussing this issue with a frustrated (former) democrat, this video was referenced: Leonard Cohen — Everybody Knows: Link to 5-Minute Video


Here’s another great song on taking a stand, Ry Cooder. Thanks to Dennis Brault for slipping this my way. It fits the times and choices perfectly — Jesus Sings To Woody Guthrie: Link to 6-Minute Video


A few folks might find this book of interest for providing some context to the significance of democratic timidity and enabling on the issue of Gina Haspel’s appointment to CIA director…

(Commoner Call cartoon and column by Mark L. Taylor, 2018. Open source and free for non-derivative use with link to )