statesmen and criminals

Andrew Sullivan correctly describes the newly released Bush torture memo as:

[a] chilling an artefact as you are ever likely to read in a democratic society, the work clearly not of a lawyer assessing torture techniques in good faith, but of an administration official tasked with finding how torture techniques already decided upon can be parsed in exquisitely disingenuous ways to fit the law, even when they clearly do not. This is what Hannah Arendt wrote of when she talked of the banality of evil. To read a bureaucrat finding ways to describe and parse away the clear infliction of torture on a terror suspect well outside any “ticking time bomb” scenario is to realize what so many of us feared and sensed from the shards of information we have been piecing together for years.

The text below (h/t Kevin Drum) shows how clearly they knew what they were doing. The memo’s authors note that the techniques they’re authorising have been condemned by the US as torture — and then they explain that they’ll use them anyway.


Reading these obscene documents, I was reminded of a recent piece in the Atlantic, where Benjamin Schwarz discusses new scholarship on Nazi Germany. He writes:

In their public pronouncements Hitler, Goebbels, and Alfred Rosenberg married the bluntest language about an exterminationist policy toward the Jews with a complete absence of detail regarding implementation of that policy. Or the regime would wink at the population, as in a famous speech Goebbels made in 1943: when describing Nazi plans for the Jews, he said “exter—” and then theatrically corrected himself with the word exclusion. By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret—open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed—the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.

That was exactly the Bush-Cheney strategy on torture. Cheney, in particular, made it pretty damn clear what was going on:

We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

The dark side. The shadows. Quietly using any means at our disposal, employing sources and methods available to our intelligence agencies. Gosh, whatever could he have been talking about?

Quite clearly, after 2001, anyone who wanted to know recognised  that the Bush administration was doing barbarous things. What’s more, they had a pretty good idea what those things were. That presented a choice for politicians and journalists. Either you stood against the tide of national security hysteria or you winked at the unjustifiable. Those who took the second option thereafter understood that, to greater or lesser degrees, they were implicated in crimes — and that knowledge gave them an investment in the regime’s ongoing apologetics. Hence the ludicrous spectacle of presumably intelligent people still trying to argue that waterboarding, slamming prisoners into walls (‘walling’, as it’s known in the trade), sleep deprivation and all the rest of it didn’t constitute a crime.

Schwarz claims that the German military effort was clearly doomed by 1943. Why then did so many Germans fight on for so long?

Surely, one factor—one whose power cannot ultimately be determined—was the Germans’ fear of the terrible reckoning that must follow from their open secret, a secret Goebbels obliquely but unmistakably shared with the nation in a grim 1943 exhortation to fight to the bitter end: “As for us, we’ve burned our bridges behind us … We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.”

We’ve been living through a miniature version of the same thing. Where, though, is our Nuremberg?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays