Leonard Pitts: Torture and fool’s gold

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 3, 2009

Our story so far: In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, hundreds of men identified as members of al-Qaida were captured and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, they were subjected to sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, dehydration, extreme temperatures, waterboarding, being chained to the floor for hours in their own waste, and other so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, even as the president was assuring the world that we don’t torture because we are America and America doesn’t do that sort of thing.
The president was, of course, lying. And having thus sold our national honor, you might wonder what we received in exchange.
The answer: nothing.
At least, not if the case of one Abu Zubaida is in any way representative. According to a March 29 report in the Washington Post, U.S. officials were convinced they had themselves a real, live al-Qaida leader in Zubaida, who was captured in Pakistan in 2002. Under pressure from the Bush White House to get something out of him, they resorted to waterboarding and other coercive measures.
Out came a flood of names and plots and details. Security was tightened, millions were spent chasing it all down and all of it was for nothing. Every investigation launched as a result of Abu Zubaida’s revelations fizzled. It turned out that, far from being an al-Qaida leader, he was a mid-level associate. The Post says most of the information he gave that proved in any way useful came during ordinary interrogation. The things he said while being tortured by the nation that does not torture were apparently just to make the pain stop.
The Post report is but the latest in a litany of revelations all suggesting the same thing: that in the wake of Sept. 11, a frightened nation betrayed one of its core principles ó the rule of law ó for the fool’s gold of security.
We tortured and then rationalized with stark illogic. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that when this debate was at its zenith, proponents, including columnist Cal Thomas, Congressman Tom Tancredo and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, defended torture by pointing out how well it seems to work for counterterrorism expert Jack Bauer. One wondered sometimes if they were aware that Jack Bauer is a character on a TV show, “24.”
And it occurs to me that if we’re going to use TV characters to frame this debate, “M-A-S-H” might be a better choice. Our Bush-era policy on torture, after all, suggests nothing so much as a White House run by Frank Burns, the supercilious super-patriot who saw enemies of America’s goodness behind every mess hall and latrine and chased them with a spectacular zealotry unimpinged by logic, common sense or simple decency.
Burns was, of course, a caricature of the Red Scare America of the 1950s where forces of paranoia and fear led by Sen. Joe McCarthy fought supposed “commie” infiltration by surveilling, blacklisting, haranguing and harassing countless innocent Americans, ruining their livelihoods and lives while doing little harm to any actual communists.
And if, 20 years later, that mindset had become a recognizable comic “type” played for laughs, that doesn’t mean the nation’s capacity to again lose its mind to fear and paranoia had lessened in the slightest.
That is what we are learning here, as revelations of Bush-era excesses continue to drip like water upon the stone of public conscience. People came out of the McCarthy era marveling at how easily fear and paranoia had stampeded us into surrendering principles that are supposed to define us. Mark my words: We will look back on this era the same way.
Once again, we have sold our national honor for fool’s gold. And once again, we will live to rue the deal as fools usually do.
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Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.