TCS Daily

Torture and the Nation

By Raphael C. Rosen - December 4, 2007 12:00 AM

BUENOS AIRES -- Across the street, rise the pristine white columns of the Navy Mechanics School. Here, during the Dirty War of 1976-1983, thousands of Argentineans were tortured. The majority never resurfaced, officially "disappeared," but in reality either machine gunned and then burned on the sports field out front or thrown from a navy airplane into the Atlantic.

Yesterday, I bought a Coke at a kiosk on the corner of Larrea and Córdoba, a quotidian downtown street where an Argentinean physicist was kidnapped for being the friend of another (also non-militant) physicist, then tortured and murdered. The day before that, I walked underneath the pale frescos adorning the interior dome of Galería Pacifico, the principal downtown mall. If I'd been there thirty years earlier, in the basement beneath my feet the denizens of Buenos Aires would have been being tortured, their screams muffled by egg cartons taped to the ceiling and walls.

The junta's clandestine terror haunts every inch of Buenos Aires. With this in mind, I went to see one of Hollywood's latest anti-Bush sermons: "Rendition," or "El Sospechoso." The merits and flaws of the film aside, the experience of watching a movie about torture in a city once saturated with it was, I assure you, sufficiently surreal. Some scenes eerily featured torture methods identical to those used by Argentina's armed forces: electric shock torture (in Argentina via the cattle prod, picana, or simply "the machine") and a cell so tiny one could not sit up straight ("the tube").

Yet, what struck me most about "Rendition," is that it demonstrated that when a nation practices torture, the legacy of that torture does not easily pass away. For despite being set primarily in Chicago and Washington DC, despite being shown in English, the film was decidedly more successful down south than in America: opening at a disappointing ninth at the American box office but placing second in Argentina (where there are roughly half as many mainstream movies out as in the US); week-to-week sales declined much more slowly in Argentina as well. The movie's obvious similarities to Argentina under the junta did not pass unnoticed. The conservative daily La Nación cast the movie's subject in no uncertain terms: "Islamic extremism and the Dirty War (guerra sucia) of the United States."

Americans would do themselves a service to take note. For in Argentina, torture devastated not only thousands of individual lives but society as a whole. Twenty-four years after the restoration of democracy, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—mothers of the disappeared, tortured and killed—still protest every Thursday afternoon demanding the truth about their children. The torturers, for their part, remain haunted by the barbaric acts they committed; they feel betrayed by the nation in whose service they made their careers. Even daily vocabulary has been scarred: words as innocuous as 'a grill' or 'to move' among many others are tattooed in Argentineans' minds as euphemisms for torture devices or murder, as Marguerite Feitlowitz demonstrated in her A Lexicon of Terror.

Of course, America's extraordinary renditions take place on a far smaller scale than Argentina's tortures did. In 1976, Argentineans filed approximately 800 (useless) writs of habeas corpus every week. Being a volunteer social worker, an academic, a lawyer, or a journalist often served as justification enough for your torture and murder. In America, last time I checked, the average person has not heard the screams of neighbors being dragged from their home in the night, their pictures and personal journals ransacked by masked men.

The difference in scale and abduction methods, however, does not render the two uses of torture incomparable. Deplorable and unpardonable as the junta's crimes against humanity were, they did not emerge from a vacuum; Argentina's early 1970's fear of internal subversion was just as real and well-founded if not more so than America's current fear of a catastrophic terrorist attack. During that era, leftist groups bombed, assassinated, and kidnapped across Argentina. In response, right-wing groups murdered leftists. As one Argentinean described to me, in the early 1970's, her mother, then a school child, recalled how the Montoneros (the leftists) would storm into the classroom rifles in hand and tell you that you must join them; later that school day, the army would enter the classroom rifles in hand and tell you to support them. When the junta took the reins of power in 1976, many Argentineans felt relief at the "gentleman's coup."

Yet, this very coup ended up bringing only a new and more fearsome blight upon the nation.

The US government naturally wants to do everything in its power to save its citizens' lives. Whether, day-to-day, torture helps achieve this goal is beyond my expertise. What is certain, however, is that the willingness to employ any method transforms the nature of America's struggle against Islamist terrorism from a solemn commitment into an obsession. And victory will not come from obsessively thwarting attacks (excellent though that is in the short-term) but from the successful discrediting of a poisonous, fascistic ideology that al-Qaeda and others seek to inject into the minds of Muslim youth across the globe. The relevant question is whether torture, despite its noxious nature, helps the long-term campaign against this ideology.

It does not. A nation like America, whose lifeblood is its citizens' enjoyment of broad Lockean ideals, dilutes its character when it commits inhuman acts for the sake of humanitarian ends. And America's character, backed up by its armed forces, is the fountain of its strength. As torture survivor (and torture opponent) John McCain recently offered during his campaign, "I know how evil this enemy is, [but the debate over torture] is really fundamentally about what kind of nation the United States of America is."

America, moreover, would do itself proud and well to pay attention to the uproar abroad over policies like torture. To be certain, many rightly argue that the United States should never allow others to dictate policy concerning its citizens' security. They posit that foreign opponents of torture are mollycoddled Europeans and their sympathizers who do not understand what it takes to defeat an ideology willing to stoop to overt moral criminality to achieve its aims. But an America truly committed to life and liberty will not be weakened when others bring to light its imperfections.

In the 1840's, northern Congressmen pressed for the abolition of the slave trade in Washington DC not least of all because of foreigners' taunting that a nation supposedly committed to liberty had human beings being bought and sold within sight of the Capital Rotunda. A middle-aged lawyer in the 1850's named Abraham Lincoln fretted that slavery risked, "proclaiming ourselves political hypocrites before the world." Similarly, when, in the 1950's, the Soviet Union spotlighted the repression of African-Americans in the south as a propaganda tool, America was neither weakened nor worsened by Eisenhower's decision to send the National Guard into Little Rock. On the contrary, when the federal government enforces the nation's ideals, America bolsters its hand both at home and abroad.

If the aim of torturing suspected terrorists is to protect the United States and other liberal democracies throughout the world, let us pause to be certain that in fact it does. For torture exacts a profound toll upon a nation, its values, and its interests. Just look to the Plaza de Mayo: a square celebrating Argentina's independence from Spain. That very plaza has since become famous not for liberty but for mothers marching and mourning their children—citizens of the Argentine republic, secretly kidnapped by the republic, supposedly for the republic—now perished from the earth.

Raphael Rosen lives in Buenos Aires. He holds degrees from Cambridge and Harvard, where he studied history.

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