On Fear, Killing, Torture and Rationalization

            By any measure this week’s juxtaposition of events was poignant. Rwanda and the world community began a 100-day commemoration of that nation’s horrific genocidal campaign 25 years ago that saw approximately 800,000-1,000,000 (mostly) Tutsis systematically hunted and murdered in an orchestrated campaign by militias of the Hutu tribe. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to release the executive summary, conclusions and dissenting views sections of a major investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) use of rendition and torture during the George W. Bush administration, 2001-2008. The Committee report accuses the CIA of misleading that administration and Congress concerning the reach of its activities and their efficacy. Meanwhile, in a very public spat, the Agency has argued the Senate Committee report is itself misrepresentative and factually inaccurate. President Barack Obama has asked the CIA to lead the review of which elements of the document may be declassified per the Senate’s demand, while protecting national security. One might wonder if the President’s action will find the fox guarding the henhouse. It will be interesting to watch this drama unfold in coming days.

            What is already clear from what is well known, however, is the intentional planning and malice of forethought that went into the Agency’s torture-related activities during the Bush presidency. Regardless of how one interprets the current controversy with Congress, it is plain that then Vice President Dick Cheney strongly supported the torture and rendition project, as he continues publicly to defend such efforts today and to denounce forcefully any and all who might disagree. For this reason, America’s descent into torture may not simply be dismissed as a rogue Agency’s leaders’ responsibility, irrespective of how arguments concerning the Senate investigation are resolved. That is, as abhorrent as our nation’s use of physical and psychological suffering was during this dark period in our history, that chapter’s unfolding is similar in one vital respect to the Rwandan genocide we now also recall: both were meticulously planned and every effort was taken to keep the origins of each mysterious and secret. While the Rwandan genocide was purportedly sparked by a military attack on an aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, who died in the assault, it is still not known with certainty who perpetrated that effort and whether its execution was as transparently cynical as it now appears, so as to justify the launch of the killings. Likewise, it remains uncertain who first pressed for the United States to employ torture counter to its international treaty obligations, the wishes of its military leaders and its Constitutional premises. As with the deaths of the Rwanda and Burundi leaders, this element in the quest for accountability in the U.S. case remains opaque. Moreover, America systematically sought to conduct its torture efforts on foreign soil so as to separate these activities from clear United States complicity.

            Apart from considering the secrecy with which the Rwandan campaign and America’s foray into torture were planned, while watching videos and reading stories this week concerning the east African nation’s genocide I have been struck by three stark realities of that epic tragedy that have broader implications. First, relatively few of the known leaders of the campaign have been brought to justice to date. There is controversy concerning why, but only a small number of those who led the effort have been prosecuted. Second, it is more than notable that so many Tutsi Rwandans who survived the 100 days have found ways to live today beside those known to have killed members of their families, including spouses, children and siblings. This fact is an extraordinary testament to the strength and will of those who have forgiven and otherwise reconciled themselves to the most heinous actions imaginable and, in a share of cases at least, to the genuine repentance of those involved in the killings. Finally, one of the knottiest issues associated with mass murder (indiscriminate murder of men, women and children on the basis of some characteristic—in this case their tribal affiliation) is how those undertaking such horrors rationalized them.

            In interviews in recent days Rwandan perpetrators have offered a variety of grounds for their willingness to participate in the killings, but three stand out for me. First, the genocide’s orchestrators systematically engaged in a campaign designed to convince those on whom they would rely to realize their plans that the Tutsi people—all Tutsi people, even close friends, neighbors and family members—were to be feared because they had designs on the property and equal standing of all Hutus. This claim was both essential and central to convincing so many to cooperate in such vicious acts. At bottom, killers were told that the ends justified the means. One had to rid the earth of these evildoers, per se, to be safe. Security and well being justified unbridled brutality.

            Second, Hutu hunters report being told over and over again that those whom they were to attack were less than human. Planners called on Hutus to find the “cockroaches” and exterminate them from the earth. Now repentant killers report being “brainwashed” by such claims, which daily issued from incessant radio broadcasts. Those constant harangues sought both to instill fear and to convince listeners that those they were being called upon to kill were not really human and so their deaths should be regarded with no more thought than one might accord the death of an insect pest.

            Finally, those who have publicly repented their actions in Rwanda and been granted at least some measure of forgiveness by survivors whose lives they so grievously affected, have reported deep concerns regarding rightful retribution on return to their villages, even when they had served prison terms. Many, in short, had come to realize the heinousness of their acts, but struggled to ask for forgiveness out of continued fear of revenge.

            While the United States government certainly did not conduct genocide in its campaign of torture during the Bush presidency, the arguments that administration employed to justify those acts and the denial of due process and Geneva Convention rights to prisoners are eerily similar to those used in Rwanda. First, while contested strongly by many, Cheney has argued repeatedly that America’s secret torture of a share of its prisoners was justified by the terrorist threat confronting the nation. That is, the end justified the means. Plainly, we desired information to protect our population and the supposition was that captured individuals could provide just such, and therefore that any and all actions could be undertaken in the name of that aspiration. The dangers of this sort of reasoning are now evident in the present case, but more generally, have been well known for eons. Many in the CIA, Cheney and others, including, ultimately, President Bush, were willing to sacrifice the nation’s international obligations and its deepest principles and to order the most despicable of acts on the basis of a rationalized necessity.

            Second, the “ends justify the means” explanation rested on a claim very similar to that operative in the Rwandan case. One ought to recall that we were and remained a nation under threat of terrorist acts in the post-September 11, 2001 era, Cheney has repeatedly said, and to allay that fear, the government was justified in taking unprecedented steps to address that challenge. In this view, there were “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys,” and those who dubbed themselves superior were justified in taking whatever actions they perceived expedient, however unlawful or cruel, in efforts to allay their concerns.

            Finally, it is worth highlighting that the undergirding justification for torture for the Bush-Cheney administration was fear. Notably, those calling on Hutus to kill their fellow Tutsi countrymen also appealed to fear as a central rationale for their genocidal crusade.

            Interestingly, none of these arguments and justifications was new in historical terms. What is still fresh is the scope of tragedy they unleashed in Rwanda, and how deeply their employ in the case of the CIA’s use of torture undermined American ideals, freedom and standing in the world. While different in scale and character, in each of these cases the resulting human suffering was profound and its long-term implications large and often unforeseen. And in each case, too, age-old appeals to basic and lamentable human characteristics or capacities yielded horrific results. Finally, the continued rationalization of these repulsive acts by a share of those complicit in them in both nations should give all individuals of good will pause. The question they raise goes deeper than misguided people making malevolent claims, to the issue of whether we can ever find ways and means to overcome these recurring dark episodes of human cruelty in our own and other nations.