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Silence in the Face of Torture

Just before Alberto Gonzales’s testimony at his January confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, one wag noted, “Mr. Gonzales has directed members of his staff to revise the White House definition of torture to include torture.”

Witty, but painful.

In his prepared remarks, Gonzales said, “America stands against and will not tolerate torture under any circumstances.” (Think: Nixon’s assurance that he was not a crook.) But a few hours into the questioning, when asked whether American soldiers or intelligence agents could “legally engage in torture under any circumstances,” his veil dropped, and he actually said, “I’d want to get back to you on that.”

It is unlikely that the American public does not know Gonzales is lying and that the United States is engaging in officially sanctioned torture. The day after Gonzales’s testimony, the Pentagon reported that the United States is now holding 325 foreign fighters in Iraq who could be transferred out of the country for indefinite detention elsewhere, the Justice Department having deemed them not entitled to protections of the Geneva Conventions. A week after that, we learned that Congress, at the urging of the White House, scrapped curbs on CIA use of torture. The evidence of ongoing torture is overwhelming.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, “The only exceptional aspect of the abuse at Abu Ghraib may have been that it was photographed.” In documents released in December to the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act, senior FBI officials refer to an Executive Order permitting military interrogators in Iraq to place detainees in painful stress positions, impose sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, intimidate them with military dogs and to use other coercive methods.

Other documents describe acts of torture and other unlawful treatment of detainees by American personnel in Iraq and at Guantanamo, including strangulation, putting lighted cigarettes into detainees’ ears, sleep deprivation, beatings and chaining detainees in a fetal position for 18 to 24 hours or more. We learned last weekend that Michael Chertoff, President Bush’s nominee for homeland security secretary, might have advised the CIA during his tenure as head of the criminal division of the Justice Department that they could engage in certain “coercive” interrogation practices — for instance “waterboarding,” or holding a detainee underwater just short of drowning — without fear of prosecution.

These revelations have produced little outrage. Gonzales and Chertoff will be confirmed, terrorist suspects will be tortured. Why are we not moved to action in the face of so many lies and so much human suffering?

Stanley Cohen is an expert in understanding how we ignore, deflect and shield ourselves from information about suffering — how we manage not to “know” what we know, and how public officials act as our willing enablers.

A sociologist at the Hebrew University in the early 1990s, Cohen categorized official responses to irrefutable research by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem on Israeli torture of Palestinian detainees: Outright denial; “discrediting” (the organization is biased, manipulated or gullible); “renaming” (yes, something happened, but it was not torture), and “justification” (yes, it happened, but it was morally justified). Media attention to the report was enormous; a taboo had been broken, and the conversation was under way. “Soon, though,” he says, “silence returned. Worse than torture not being in the news, it was no longer news.” Stunned and mystified, he spent the next 10 years studying all points of what he calls the “atrocity triangle” — denial from the point of view of the victims, the perpetrators and the observers. His book, published in 2001, is titled “States of Denial.”

Cohen talks about the “denial paradox”: You have to know something to deny it. He calls denial a mechanism for processing information. The information is right there in front of us, but instead of clicking on “enter,” we click on “delete.”

It is not always so. We have seen an extraordinary outpouring of empathy following the tsunami in Asia this past December. Tens of millions of dollars have been donated and thousands of volunteers interrupted their own lives to assist the rebuilding of others.

But terrorism-obsession makes us callous. “Dangerous” people are tortured, and officials assure us that it didn’t happen, that it was not torture, that it was necessary to keep us safe. We can’t extend to Al Qaeda suspects the protection of the Geneva Conventions, Gonzales said, because it “would limit our ability to solicit information.” The Convention Against Torture is applicable, he concedes, “but information is very, very important. And if there are ways we can get that information, for example, through inducements,” then we have to do it. Forget the generals and military lawyers who testified that information obtained under torture is unreliable and not worth the risks it poses for similar treatment of Americans captured next week or next year. Forget morality.

For a while, it seemed that the photographs of Abu Ghraib would do what human rights reporting had failed to do — make us click on “enter” instead of “delete.” Not for nothing has this administration banned photographs of flag-draped coffins. But, as Susan Sontag wrote, the passion aroused by powerful photographs “needs to be translated into action or it withers.” Stirring information washes over us, unabsorbed and unacknowledged.

What could get us to acknowledge the torture that is perpetrated in our name? How can we bridge the gap between what we know (and profess to believe) and what we do? This is not a call for extraordinary heroism, just an end to ordinary silence.

Kathleen Peratis, a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden LLP, is a trustee of Human Rights Watch.

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