Why torture is so American!



Every American school child knows or should know about the Salem witch trials, and part of that chapter of American history involves torture. Perhaps we should not torture our own citizens that overtly, but events as they transpired a few hundred years ago certainly represent American ingenuity so that an early form of water torture, the sink or swim method, now has been developed to be used on our enemy along with dramatic-sounding fairy tale expressions such as “dungeon.”

While the term “waterboarding” to the uninitiated sounds like a leisure sport and offers visions of John Kerry hanging onto a sail attached to a surfboard working up an appetite for grilled burgers with ketchup, let us not be lulled so easily into leisure. We live, after all, in the land of the Puritan work ethic, with its unrelenting drive, imposed by a worldly authority said to be inspired by a higher one.

Puritanism can readily be connected to torture, and there’s no denying the Puritan work ethic equals America and American in some form or other, whether you know who Cotton Mather was or those descendant practitioners who have put Americans behind the plow, desk, and factory conveyor belt, long before and after the arrival of Nazis and fascism, to create some kind of “better” existence justified by the inalienable right to dominate the world.

Torture is simply part of our American dominion and domination, and it bears emphasizing torture is precisely so American precisely because the more orderly we become as a society, with laws, rules, regulations, lawsuits–off-shoots the founding fathers could not or would not have wanted to imagine–the greater the need to preserve some of that individualistic past that threatens to be buried underneath congressional mounds of paper; not to mention that remaining want for self-flagellation, that Calvinist or other Protestant streak of self-shaming and punishment on the spot, often at well-calculated and established intervals, to which some individuals are attracted and feel self-appointed, even anointed.

This time the stand-in was Diane Feinstein, who decided to go on television and read her torture-report. I watched her live, and as I was eating a nutritious fast food meal I came to understand why Inspector Callahan, a.k.a. “Dirty Harry,” interrupted his lunch break and, while munching on a hot dog, decided to torture a criminal lying in a pool of blood by aiming his .44 magnum and pulling the trigger to determine whether he had spent all six bullets. Dirty Harry, even as early in the 1970s, was working in a system that was broken by officials concerned with political correctness and public perception, and, undermined by a bureaucracy that had no respect for the dirty work he had to do for them, Harry exercised as much as possible his individuality, and why would he not, against a criminal who would not have hesitated a moment to take his life. Not to mention the lives of the “upstanding” citizens of San Francisco where he worked. And we cannot forget that through Harry many of the “clean” citizens experienced catharsis and also what they could not do with their hands tied.

The same kind of rugged American individualism has been seen in numerous western movies, in which the “cowboy” or “white man” has been tortured by Indians and defiantly spat in their face rather than engage in some kind of dialogue of empathy. John Wayne and Kirk Douglas and others all knew if they or other settlers were captured by the Indians, this meant torture and death. In return, they did not hesitate to punch others, break their jaw, or bloody them in an attempt to gain information to save lives before the Indians attacked or other crooked white men would commit uncivil deeds toward them or innocent people, innocent people always being the ones who don’t get their hands dirty in interaction with the enemy, whether by following the law or hiding behind the law.

Sure, John Wayne and company were publicly shamed by some preachers safe in their little wooden churches giving Sunday sermons into which the torturing cowboy might on occasion step, whereupon the entire congregation came to a collective silence and turned around or avoided eye contact, but it was implicitly understood that someone had to do the American thing, which includes torture, to allow that little wooden church painted white to stand for another Sunday service.

But this is not all about religion, which appears to be inseparable from government. Torture is American in just about every secular way you can think of, as we live in this great nation. A small amount, or even showers of water boarding is no worse than thousands of farmers and their families inhaling and eating dust and suffering the vagaries-by-design of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Any viewing of a PBS documentary showing either form of torture will confirm this assertion. And as Americans, most of us understand the need to swallow and eat that which we do not like on occasion in order to survive. It is our duty to do so. And if this means for some swallowing that our countries tortures the enemy, so be it. Americans have suffered greatly in our young history.

Sleep deprivation? How many factory workers, and let’s not forget also among the white collar crew the much misaligned journalists, have not gone without sleep or hardly any sleep for days and weeks, months, years on end, standing upright for hours or sitting in furniture not designed by orthopedic feel-good people. And do you really think staring into various computer screens fourteen hours a day would not qualify as torture? Come on Feinstein & Co, as much as I admire your wanting to take a moral stand, where is your concern and praise for Americans? Never mind that some will be beheaded and blown up with additional gusto brought courtesy of your 500- or is it 600-page executive summary, from shore to shore over here, that’s right, in America, people are suffering every day. The least you could do is acknowledge their patriotism as they participate in torture, read them into that big book of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman workers you put proclamations into!

Why do you, Senator Feinstein, appear to hate so hate the CIA, three letters that sound as if Dr. Seuss should write a book about them? They are the instrument that let you stand and read from your pulp. Would any of your staffers qualify under the heading of being tortured? Is it not worse to have your head and be aware of all this sound and fury and have to churn out long reports with little time for self-examination, maybe only the fleeting thought of the key words of unexamined lives and quiet desperation before the iPhone or Droid wakes Prufrock up to go to work? Don’t you think if any of the Gitmo detainees had to work for you they would not soon find various forms of torture, and, the irony no doubt lost on you, these would be the kinds of things you would have to put into a report? And that you would have to call them patriots if you took just long enough to think about the big picture, as they say, or got the bird’s eye, drone’s view of things?

Now I had to look up the rectal feeding bit that you mentioned, but after skimming one beastly explanation, I can only think that college students are up to this sort of thing on a fairly regular basis, so the education of young Americans is once again truly a form of qualified discomfort worthy of being entered into the annals of torture. But remember, this is all so American! God bless those college students who make it out alive to enter the workforce!

Mentioned also again were the photos of naked detainees and German shepherds, which makes me think about the many Americans who are out jogging or running with barely any clothing and attacked by dogs that are not even on a leash. Yes, we Americans are keeping up with the report of discomfort read by Feinstein, who at least once hydrated with a glass of water. Perhaps the senator runs and just forgot the plight of hydrating, canine-besieged fitness fanatics. But come on, Kim Kardashian, Weiner, citizen Q–any of them, Americans to a T, are salivating at that kind of photo op, even better if it is a selfie.

It is only American to celebrate torture as being American, one of America’s finest talents and accomplishments of our Deus ex Machina operation. I am proud to be an American to be able to listen to you read your torture-report while grabbing some nutritious fast food over lunch. But please, while you bring attention to the names of individuals whom I can never pronounce, let us not forget about the guys in the back who burn their balls at the french fryer or have their minds numbed by flipping thousands of burgers so their wrists ache. For they are truly Americans, as truly as torture is American.