Terror, Torture, and a Texas plumber’s used truck

Having recently flown domestically in the USA, I open my checked bag to discover a note from the Transportation Security Administration. “Smart Security Saves Time,” the note said, citing the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 as the reason why my bag was randomly(?) searched. Any locks on the luggage will be broken, but that’s okay, because the TSA “sincerely regrets having to do this”. They do not have to pay for any damage.

This simple, official note complete with contact information (for packing tips!) is more interesting for what it does not say. There is a palpable tension in the document which stems from its silence on the real issues. How is this not a violation of the constitutional guarantee to privacy and unlawful searches? Is this random bag search merely an elaborate pretence so that any bag may be searched at will?

Maybe this random bag search is – colloquially – “small potatoes”, but still, I feel like there are important principals at stake here. It is too easy to do nothing. And I do not think that is a coincidence; and therein lies the significance of the TSA’s Random Bag Search policy. Does anybody else think that “Smart Security Saves Time” makes no sense at all? That it is a jumble of words that might hopefully keep people from complaining?

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s “interrogation-and-detension” programs, (let’s call it the ‘torture report’) has confirmed exactly what a lot of us has known, or at least strongly assumed and suspected all along. The CIA has been engaging in torture, and while apologists have deployed a web of euphemisms and disingenuous statements worthy of a squid’s ink attack.

And again, like the TSA’s luggage-search ticket, what is more interesting is what is not said in the document, and what has not happened in public opinion. The New Yorker has published a series of articles by Jane Mayer which do a great job of covering the major issues that the torture report has uncovered. Here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/22/torture-truth. And here: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/unidentified-queen-torture. There are several over-arching issues: Where is the Outrage? And how can we ensure that these deeds are not perpetuated, and that the people in the CIA will be brought so some sort of justice?

The history of modern torture begins with European society entering the ‘modern’ period. More than a tautology, my point is that the why of torture and even the why of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (beyond the stated reasons) has a long history. With the French Revolution, we see the beginning of modern terror and torture. By ‘modern’ I mean most closely the curious sense if frustration that results from attempts to force an abstract regime upon messy reality. The French Revolution could be described as the first utopian revolution to come to power; its inability to create a government and society that was truely a paradigm of liberty, equality, and fraternity was doomed to explode in extreme paranoia and violence.

In a more philosophical sense, terror/torture reflect a modern malaise, which is essentially of the discrepancy between our abstract ideas and personal perceptions, and the messy, complicated, and absurd reality that we all inhabit. Other examples of modern torture, most notably (I am sure there are other examples) the Nazis, the Soviets, the French in Algeria, and most recently the US in the War on Terror, all bear certain similarities that cannot be ignored.

For each example, we can point to a ruling ideology (Stalinism, neo-conservativism etc) that interprets the world in a rather black-and-white way, struggling to deal with circumstances that defy its own understanding. Asymmetrical warfare heightens this sense of paranoia and frustration. Deploying tanks and fighter jets against an insurgent network of shepherds or farmers is the ultimate clash between world-views. The gap between propaganda and reality can only be maintained by ever-increasing amounts of propaganda, fear and violence.

Reading reports about the CIA’s dentension-and-interrogation programs, one has a sense that torture was a motivated by a mixture of revenge, covering for the CIA’s failure to prevent or predict the September 11th attacks and the underlying sense that actually eliminating the spectre of Islamic suicidal terrorism or the terror networks would be essentially impossible. Let us be clear here: torture does not work. It does not produce reliable information. It produces a babel of false-information; information which is much more likely to be what the tortured thinks the torturer wants to hear than anything else (hence a wild-goose chase across Montana looking for al-Queida, for example). If I am being tortured about the possibility of there being a terrorist network in the US, and I say “there isn’t one”, the interrogator is unlikely to believe me. I, as the interrogated, will say anything to just make it stop.

Even if successful examples of “enhanced interrogation” can be cited, wether in French Algeria or 2006 era Guantanamo Bay, it is simply not a tactic which can be justified under any circumstances, wether they be practical, legal or moral. Torture will always be more about the torturers than the tortured.

In the US, there is a very sad lack of response. Every step of the way, leading Republicans have shrugged torture off even as they hypocritically pose as guardians of good ole American values. With the release of the “torture report”, some have suggested that the lack of a virulent public response is due to the idea that “everyone already knew about it”. That’s no excuse. In practical terms, the “silent majority” of the US public is okay with torture. When allegations first appeared, when pictures from Abu Grahib exploded on the scene, where was the outrage?

So why are so many of us okay with torture, especially since we know that it is surprisingly useless as an actual tactic of national security (I would argue that the use of torture has made us less-safe in the long run). In a phrase, it is the intersection of apathy, political jockeying (whatever you do, don’t admit you where wrong), and simple revenge. There is a terrible sense that the forces in our society and in the US government which advocated torture and “rendition” will bear no penalties or consequences, and the cycle of violence is free to repeat itself. A very dark precedent has been set, and even though we can expect the Senate’s report to be published early in the new year, I do not think there will a public cleansing of the sins of torture.

A few days ago, a terrorist group posted pictures of themselves in action in Syria. Hilariously, they were using a Ford F-250 pickup truck, formerly of Mark-1 Plumbing out of Texas City, Texas. The picture shows the truck with the advertising decal on the driver’s door as a heavy machine-gun fires away. It is a simple story; just another used truck being sold down the line through an opaque series of buyers and sellers. I love this story because it is a near-perfect example of how our world actually works these days. It is a story of globalization and absurd forces pursing their own little fantasies to everybody’s mutual detriment.

If any lesson can be gleaned from the CIA’s torture programs and the interesting life of a used pickup truck, is that our world is very new and different from anything has come along before. The US’ War on Terror is as much a reflection of our new globalised world as it is the actions of a lumbering imperial power attempting to live out its super-power fantasy.

It is the same apathy that implicitly authorises torture that has made it possible for a Texas plumber’s truck to find its way to Syria in the hands of extremists.

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