A History of Violence: Why investigating historic torture matters

Today, in a development that should have surprised exactly no one, we all found out that the CIA tortured people after 9/11 and that dozens of countries around the world helped them do it.

Forgive my initial cynicism, but this narrative should be common knowledge. Was there really a need for the US Senate to spend millions of dollars investigating something we all knew about? Actually, yes. Yes there was, and is, a need to investigate what the world’s security services were doing after the autumn of 2001. If you are in any doubt then I advise you to take a few moments and skim through the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, or one of the dozens of article summarising it. But don’t do it after you’ve eaten, because you’re stomach will turn.

Everyon‘knew’ that the CIA tortured suspects in the years following 9/11. In fact, reacting to the report today former Presidential candidate John McCane admitted that in many ways its findings were not new. But the graphic details of the methods and the loose, saloon bar decision making that governed their use that the report reveals is shocking. In 2012, Kathryn Bigelow faced criticism for the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. The scenes she directed, showing the rendition and ‘advanced interrogation’ of suspects in the hunt for Osama bin Laden were brutal. The film was criticised both by those who believed it glorified torture of prisoners and those who thought Bigelow had given too much away and should even be investigated for revealing so much of the CIA’s method. In the end, it seems that Zero Dark Thirty showed a greatly sanitised version of what the US was doing to its prisoners and that, within the halls of powers, there would have been those who knew that Bigelow was a considerable way from telling the full story of rendition.

It shouldn’t have to be said, and yet it seems like it must be, that torture is morally revolting. As well as this, it also doesn’t work. The majority of prisoners are more likely to say anything they think their captors want to hear, rather than spitting out the truth under duress. Equally, torture delegitimises the state that claims to be trying to protect its citizens. In the British TV drama Complicit, first aired last year, MI6 officer Edward Ekubo (played by Spooks alumni Daniel Oyelowo) tortures a British terror suspect being held in Egypt, a man who is almost certainly planning a ricin attack in London. In the end, Edward’s actions and the complicity of the British government in torture sees the suspect, Waleed Ahmen, released and MI6 having gained nothing. The British people are not safer because of Edward’s actions and the state has been morally compromised.

A still from the set of Zero Dark Thirty, with Bigelow on the right.

Watching both films again today, one must ask just how complicit Britain has been in the vile crimes described in the Senate report. We know that the British government knew at least some of what was going on and that British security services were given information from tortured sources. Britain was not, however, a location for any of the ‘black site’ prisons where the torture physically occurred. But how much detail of the programme did the CIA share? Did Britain help with the movement or capture of suspects? Were, as has been alleged, British agents present during the torture of suspects? These are some basic, very basic, questions we do not have answers for. Today, David Cameron joined a long line of British politicians to skilfully avoid answering questions on British involvement in these post 9/11 crimes. He declared that the issues were ‘dealt with’ from a British perspective, but offered the timely reminder that torture is, of course, wrong. ‘After 9/11’ he said, ‘there were things that happened that were wrong – and we should be clear about the fact they were wrong’.

When Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning broke their vows of secrecy to reveal to the world the scale of the NSA’s electronic surveillance programme (and the involvements, again, of a number of other nations including Britain), their most shocking truth was the lack of oversight on the operations in question. It wasn’t that people didn’t ‘know’ that governments spied on each other or on their own citizens. It was that no one had imagined just how widespread or uncontrolled that spying was. Perhaps then, we shouldn’t been surprised by the revelations today that something else we knew about but tried to ignore was both much worse and much less controlled than we had thought. Clearly there are questions that our governments and our security services need to answer. If we now fail to ask these questions, and to keep asking them in the future, then maybe we’re all complicit as well.


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