How Washington state fed America's torture beast

The Northwest thread that ties America's 'enhanced interrogation techniques' together holds us all responsible for the torture report.
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The Northwest thread that ties America's 'enhanced interrogation techniques' together holds us all responsible for the torture report.

Spokane, the lilac city, gave us Bing Crosby and poet Carolyn Kizer.

It also gave us John Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, the alleged merchants of torture, “learned helplessness,” and practices that cannot be un-thought (read: forced rectal feeding.)

As the Spokesman Review reported, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, a company hatched by the two Washington psychologists, raked in $81 million from the CIA to impart wisdom on Marquis de Sade-style interrogation.

Anal-hydration consulting is nice work if you can get it.

It’s a sad juxtaposition: The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee‘s torture report, tortured by CIA doublespeak, was released on the eve of last Wednesday's Human Rights Day.

Add to it Eric Garner, extinguished by a chokehold, and the Ferguson non-indictment. 

So much for Human Rights Day's sepia-toned pics of Eleanor Roosevelt and streams of social media quoting the sacralized language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"The use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies,” Sen. John McCain said the afternoon of the report’s release. “Our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights."

Most Americans apparently don’t share McCain's notion. A 2011 Pew survey found 53 percent of respondents favor G-men torturing alleged terrorists who may possess critical info. Will the Senate report, which makes plain torture’s savagery and ineffectiveness, move the needle?

On Wednesday, the Seattle Human Rights Commission hosted its annual human rights celebration at Town Hall. There was mention of the report, but the moment of silence was reserved for Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.   

In its report takeaway, the Washington State Religious Campaign Against Torture reduced the question of torture to its moral core. “We reject that ‘effectiveness’ should be the ultimate value by ?which we judge the use of torture. We hold that each human being is sacred. All human beings have the right not to be tortured. Global society calls that right a human right. If torture is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

The group’s ecumenical message centers on truth, reconciliation and accountability. The challenge is identifying a vehicle to ferret out the truth — such as a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission — and also ensure accountability. That seems like a non-starter: The U.S. Justice Department quickly announced it won’t pursue prosecutions of torturers or torture’s desk-jockey architects. 

“Our country is at a crossroad,” said the Religious Campaign's president, Rob Crawford.

The multiplier effect of the Senate report, Ferguson, and Garner throws that idea of “our country at a crossroad” into bold relief.

The United States could seize the moment. Modernize and put teeth into a human rights agenda; transcend soft clichés and concentrate on outcomes.

Lawmakers could demonstrate moral imagination, at home and abroad, by hitching human rights to the "radical center."

Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron. (Know any steely-eyed moderates navigating Congress’ ideological halls?) In fact, radical centrism involves re-evaluating systems and radically transforming institutions. It’s also married to a pragmatic politics that shuns utopian naïvete as much as amorality in the pursuit of geopolitical power. The approach was encapsulated by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (purportedly President Obama’s favorite philosopher) to embrace idealism without illusions.

The key elements of any radical reforms from the center would be: What works, what’s consistent with American values and universal human rights, and where is the dinero going? Ideally, the money is not going into the pockets of Spokane interrogation consultants.

Encouragingly, human rights are an increasingly popular area of study at Northwest colleges. It’s an almost inverse relationship: The diffusion of human rights scholarship — and a swelling of what constitutes a human right — and the reality of a violent, rights-stomping world. 

New human rights scholarship includes a chorus of naysayers, with arguments from the University of Chicago’s Eric Posner, Harvard’s Samuel Moyn and the University of London’s Stephen Hopgood over the toothlessness of many human rights institutions.  

But there are also institutions that illustrate promise, such as the European Court of Human Rights. Emulate it, and avoid the cynical Kissinger-ian road that drop-kicks the principle of universal rights. 

In a 1975 memo to Kissinger to encourage a General Assembly speech on human rights, then-UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote, “Ours is a culture based on the primacy of the individual — the rights of the individual, the welfare of the individual, the claims of the individual against those of the state.”

Moynihan continued. “We will insist on broadening the definition of welfare to include not only the economic conditions of the individual, but his political condition as well.”

Lawmakers can seize the Moynihan vision and update it for a new century. Remake Congressional oversight of the intelligence community so it aligns with the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. Be bold and join the International Criminal Court. Hold rights-abusing nations such as Syria accountable by establishing no-fly zones.    

Coherence and accountability demand other actions too: Abolish solitary confinement at home, breathe life into restorative justice, de-militarize domestic policing. Think big. Humans are sacred; institutions are not.   

“There is a sense in which we are all each other’s consequences.” Wallace Stegner wrote in “All the Little Live Things.” The post-9/11 torture narrative is knit together by a Northwest thread. We’re all responsible.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson