Thursday, January 22, 2009

Robert Gibbs: torture, outsmarting the bad guys

It is ironic that I came to this country because it was against torture: I was not sure about any other country, but I was sure about this one. I found it extraordinary that many journalists today seem to imply by their questions to Robert Gibbs that torture is the only way to acquire knowledge of the enemy. Of course it is not: do not believe an instant that the CIA is powerless without torture!
I had in the past worked for several human rights agencies and collected stories from people who had been tortured East, in communist countries, and in Greece under the colonels and West, specially in South America, and South from Spain to Iran to South Africa. Keeping notes of torture was a despairing job: torture was almost everywhere in the 70s, but it was nothing like seeing the results with your own eyes. I do remember people with burns, people without nails, and people with arms or legs torn and unusable: I still have nightmares filled with blood. The Prime Minister of the “New Yugoslavia” was once interrogated about Kosovo, in London, and answered: "All history books should be kept away from children." This gave me a bitter pleasure.

To me the Nazis tortured and lost the war, the British and the Americans used another weapon: they outsmarted them.

When each generation comes to war, there is a temptation to save lives by forcing some people to talk under torture. It is easy to find young men who believe that by torturing, they achieve a greater good, save lives of their countrymen, protect their own. And then, they are not sissies; they have to do what has to be done. The discourse is successful in any country. It was in France in the 60’s, a country that has many faults but is generally considered civilized.
The problem is that we never really know who knows, so we torture innocent people. The problem is that most of our enemies don’t know squat, and they tell us what we want to hear. The problem is that with each wrongdoing, each atrocity, we create a century of hate. I know exactly what the Germans did to my family in 1914. Armenians know exactly what the Turks did. Black people remember their history. You will have a hard time finding Japanese Americans who do not know that their grandparents were in camps during the war. None of us wants to forget 9/11. It is a pity that each generation has to be explained this again and again and again, and that so many governments hide bad deeds, poor administration and stupid revenge under the guise of a need for information.
Legal wartime behavior is not easy to achieve: there is the pressure of war, the rage of seeing your friends killed, the fear, the sense of urgency. So I do not condemn soldiers who go too far: wanting to pummel somebody’s face to get to the truth is very human. What I criticize is the executive for its lack of vision and for the lack of training in appropriate techniques of war when it will boil down to man-to-man contact.
What do we want after the war ends? All wars end. It used to be that Americans, specially the army, were admired worldwide for their restraint as opposed to the Nazis’ immorality and for the way they carefully protected works of art in all of Europe during wartime. We seem to have lost our interest in protecting art.
At the end of the day, let us be efficient and use restraint, protect children, protect history, protect art. But let us also outsmart the bad guys. We got a weakness there that waterboarding never compensated for.

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