The worst thing in the world

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by Jeff Fecke | April 17, 2009 • When I was ten years old, I read 1984.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

It wasn’t typical fare for someone between fourth and fifth grades, but I’d always been ahead of the curve in reading ability, and the straightforward prose of Orwell was not beyond me. Besides, it was 1984, and it seemed to me I ought to read a book named for that year.

And so I did.

But while the prose of the book was not beyond me, the emotion behind it was. I was ten; I didn’t understand how Winston — and Julia — could surrender, could betray one another. I still had a child’s romantic understanding of good and evil, and I could not quite wrap my brain around the ending, even as it seemed, in some way I could not explain, somehow right.

All I knew, as I concluded the book on the old green couch in my parents’ basement, was that I was grateful we did not live in a state that could countenance the horror of Oceana. Unlike the poor souls in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the American government, even under Reagan, would never spy on our citizens. And they certainly, certainly, certainly would never torture.

That much I knew.

‘You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

–George Orwell, 1984

As explained below, any physical pain resulting from these techniques, even in combination, cannot reasonably be expected to meet the level of “severe physical pain” contemplated by the statute. We conclude, therefore, that the authorized use in combination of these techniques by adequately trained investigators, as described in the Background Paper and the April 22 [redacted] Fax, could not reasonably be considered specifically intended to do so.

–Acting Asst. Attorney General Steven Bradbury, 5/10/05

Once, we prided ourselves on being better than our enemies. It was not just idle boasting; the fact that America did not have the gulag system, did not disappear political enemies, did not torture its citizens or its enemies — these were not just signs that we were good people, but they were part of our national belief in our inherent moral superiority. Americans didn’t torture, we said, because we didn’t need to torture. We were simply right about capitalism and democracy, and only a nation afraid of the truth would need do so. While the Russians, we knew, would torture our spies as soon as look at ‘em, we knew that the best thing we could do is kill ‘em with kindness. And while things didn’t always work out exactly that way, there was more truth than not in the conceit. We didn’t condone torture. It wasn’t just wrong; it was un-American. And if it happened in some out-of-the-way conflict, or in some dark room somewhere, it wasn’t done under color of law.

But in the past eight years, we now know, America abandoned that once-cherished belief. We stopped being a nation that would never stoop to torture, and started looking for ways to rationalize torture so that we could call it something else. We poured water down people’s throats, and called it “waterboarding,” and reacted with shocked surprise when people pointed out that the water cure is a form of torture that goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years. We put people in “stress positions,” and said that this was nothing like hanging a prisoner from the wall by manicle, even if we were shackling people so that they could not sit, could not lie down, could not find a position in which they were not in pain.

And today we found out that we used psychological forms of torment that O’Brien would have been proud of.

The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.

‘The worst thing in the world,’ said O’Brien, ‘varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.’

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

‘In your case,’ said O’Brien, ‘the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.’

–George Orwell, 1984

You [the CIA] would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him.

–Jay Bybee, Office of Legal Counsel Memo 8/1/2002

I understand the reluctance of President Obama to prosecute the thugs in the Bush Administration who authorized the use of torture. We are in a severe crisis, and things are likely to get worse before they get better; political energy spent attacking Bush is energy that can’t be used to push for health care. And while the Village was quite happy to see Bill Clinton punished for getting a blow job, there has been no such support among the chattering classes for punishment being meted out for violations of the Geneva Convention.

But while these memos don’t tell us anything new — well, not exactly — they do remind us of just what the previous administration thought of our national soul.

Torture is wrong. It is evil. It is the deepest perversion humanity has created. It is, in its own way, worse than murder — for at least murder does not prolong suffering, does not sustain agony. By affirmatively tying America to torture, George W. Bush placed us squarely among the worst nations that have ever been, or ever will be. That we found useful idiots to claim we were not torturing, technically, because we weren’t calling it torture, and besides, it’s not really torture when we do it — well, there will always be useful idiots around. Good leaders ignore them.

There are worse things that can happen to a nation than being attacked. The destruction that occurred on September 11, 2001 was awful, but it was transient; it was an awful moment in time, but it was just a moment in time. But in our reaction to it, our thoughtless invasion of Iraq, our shredding of civil liberties, and our embrace of torture methods perfected by our erstwhile enemies in the U.S.S.R. — by these actions, we lost a bit of what it was to be America. We lost a bit of our soul.

Sometime in the next dozen years, my daughter will chance upon 1984. She will read it, as I did, and she may understand it better or worse than I did at the time, depending on how old she is. But at the end, when Winston is crying his tears of Victory Gin, loving Big Brother, she will be denied the comfort I knew as a child, twenty-five years ago. For she will know that her nation has tortured, and done so willingly. That it tortured its enemies will be no relief; no country tortures its friends. She will grow up in a nation that is closer to Oceana than the one I grew up in. And I will always despise George W. Bush and his cronies for that; they stained the very soul of this nation. May God have mercy on our souls for not stopping them, and may we find the strength to do what must be done to prevent this from happening again — and if that means prosecuting the bastards, that’s what we have to do.

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