The January/February issue of Atlantic includes a fascinating (and depressing) article by Cullen Murphy examining the notorious Spanish Inquisition, and a series of disturbing parallels with torture authorized under US policy until recently. Murphy notes how extensive documentation of torture sessions during the Dark Ages reflects an early version of the medical experimentation model practiced under the Bush administration. The Torturer’s Apprentice also examines the training protocol surrounding both the Spanish Inquisition and contemporary military interrogation, which not only reflect a similar approach to training, but even many of the very same techniques. Murphy notes (with original emphasis):
The Bush administration put forth a very narrow definition, arguing that for an action to be deemed torture, it must produce suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” To place this in perspective: the administration’s threshold for when an act of torture begins was the point at which the Inquisition stipulated that it must stop.
This comparison is not simply a matter of historical analysis. Because no senior executive officials have ever been held accountable (or even investigated) for human rights abuses committed under the Bush administration, the Obama administration’s repudiation of torture has no lasting force beyond President Obama’s tenure in office. In fact, torture not only could occur under the next administration, but is also predictable given the recent expansion of military detention under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Thankfully, the Obama administration issued a signing statement when signing the NDAA into law, pledging not to use the NDAA’s detention provisions to deny trials to US citizens. But that promise is at least underinclusive—since the right to due process has historically extended to citizens and non-citizens—and also ephemeral, since the next administration is not bound by the current administration’s policies. That promise may even be shaky while Obama remains in office, given the President’s disappointing record of repeatedly breaking promises to restore civil rights principles (e.g., signing FISA after promising a filibuster, or signing the NDAA after originally promising a veto). Only time will tell… …but concerned Americans need not wait to raise our voices. Already, voices from across the spectrum, and across the country, have emerged to resist indefinite detention without trial. State legislators in Virginia, Tennessee, and Washington have introduced bills to block the participation of state agencies in detention operations authorized by the NDAA. Several more are underway, and local resolutions either rejecting the NDAA or asserting “torture free zones” are moving in cities from Northampton, MA, to Minneapolis, MN. Perhaps most promising among the municipal efforts to restore human rights is Chicago, IL—the hometown of a president who found his way to the White House by studying principles of constitutional law he himself has thrown to wind, now governed under the iron fist of a Mayor largely responsible for the President’s failures. Will your city be next? It’s up to you.