Those torture memos

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There is something precious and virginal about the torture debate in the United States. As if that nation never knew torture before the shock of 9/11, and had to play catch-up, stumbling understandably as it felt its way.

The notion that torture is foreign to U.S. policy would leave people in Latin America laughing bitterly. For 63 years -- first in Panama, then in Georgia -- the School of the Americas (now renamed) has trained Latin American security forces using manuals frequently found to violate human rights.

Last week in Trinidad, Barack Obama was lectured on this kind of history and given renowned author Eduardo Galeano's book, Open Veins of Latin America, which covers much of the sad tale and has been continuously in print in English and Spanish for nearly 40 years. I'd be surprised if he doesn't already have his own copy.

Nor is torture just a matter for dramatic foreign events such as wars or 9/11. Domestic police forces torture frequently. I knew a Toronto cop in the 1970s judged to have used the claw, a pincer device, on suspects' testicles. The taser is descended from a long line of electric torture appliances such as the magneto, although it was marketed as a standard police weapon. That's how Robert Dziekanski wound up dead at the Vancouver airport. Many common torture techniques also evolved from police practices, which aim less at gaining information than eliciting confessions, in order to win convictions.

This brings us back to the U.S. debate. The most interesting revelation in newly released documents there shows that the "enhanced interrogation" methods of late 2001 were due to official "frustration" in "establishing a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq," in order to rationalize a war against Iraq that the Bush administration had already decided on. They needed proof of a terrorist tie, not fresh information!

And they got it, through torture. Colin Powell used it at the United Nations, although it was later debunked and repudiated. The claim that torture "worked," because they got information that saved lives, the way Jack Bauer does, is mostly smoke to cover their real motive: justifying the war.

I don't doubt an occasional truth gets blurted out if you waterboard someone 183 times in a month, as the CIA did -- along with much else. But that doesn't mean you can tell true from false from delirious, or that you wouldn't have got there more efficiently and reliably in other ways. The point is, they weren't looking for actionable info; they were looking for lies about Iraq. You don't get those through normal police work, but you may, by torture.

This makes torture a component of foreign policy, rather than a unique and momentary aberration. In fact, foreign policy itself has lots in common with torture: not just war but coercion, bribes, threats, pressure, sanctions. In foreign policy, as in torture, legalities are murky or non-existent. Power rules. If war is an extension of politics, torture is an extension of war.

The whole torture debate irritates me to the extent that it implies you can isolate the issue and redress it alone, the way a newspaper can correct one fact in a story and somehow imply that everything else in the paper was true. There is nothing unique or one-off about torture, war or institutionalized violence. We live in an interconnected reality.

So I'm not very keen on prosecuting those who urged on the torturers. I'd rather focus on historical and institutional issues; on continuities of U.S. (and NATO) foreign policy back through the Clinton years and before; and even on cultural contributors to torture such as the celebration of violence. It was striking this past week to watch former Watergate felon Gordon Liddy scoff at allegations of torture and then see Don Cherry scorn concerns over "the rough stuff" in hockey. Wardrobe aside, it could have been the same guy.

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