This previous week brought what is undoubtedly the most contentious Senate confirmation hearing of the Trump presidency (so far): the nomination of intelligence officer Gina Haspel for director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Her critics describe her as a war criminal, who oversaw torture and destruction of evidence at a CIA black site in Thailand, while her supporters back her as effective, loyal and merely a follower of protocol. The tide against Haspel has been massive and it has also opened up a larger conversation about reforming the practices of the CIA and the legitimacy of torture.
Haspel’s crimes against humanity spark a much-needed conversation about abusive institutions and abusive powers within our government, of which there are many. Haspel’s critics are notably much more vocal than her supporters, but we should not let this fool us into thinking the conversation about torture is over. In fact, Haspel has had a quiet and strong support growing for her.
As her confirmation hearing grows closer, she has slowly crept her way towards the necessary amount of votes to assume the position of Director. The American public, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, are still practically split even on whether or not torture is acceptable. For these reasons, the importance of condemning state-sanctioned torture as an immoral crime is still hugely important.
One of the best ways to observe the issue of torture is to observe its supporters. Many people have come to the defense of Gina Haspel, willing to justify her application of torture. In this position, there are complex pathologies at work. And I say pathology, because those who support the use of torture justify their position almost entirely pathologically. I do not believe that those who support torture do so solely because they believe that it is an effective means of interrogation. Studies and research have repeatedly brought to our attention that alternative, psychologically based, non-violent means of interrogation are consistently more effective. So why do we resort to torture?
Here I would like to draw a comparison to the death penalty. If the widespread American support for the death penalty is due to our belief in its utility, then it certainly doesn’t seem like it. The strongest, most common justification for the death penalty is the quality of vengeance. We feel these individuals, through their crimes, have brought upon themselves a deserving of death.
This exact same logic applies to torture; the most common justifications for torture either consciously or subconsciously paint the victims of torture as deserving of their pain. Supporters who say that they only believe in torture as an effective means of national security are in a way lying to themselves; in accepting its utility, they justify it morally by accepting that the tortured deserve it.
Understanding torture as a reprehensible act has led many in American politics to oppose Gina Haspel as the ultimate representative of this institutional abuse. This is uplifting, but most of her critics falter in one way: they condemn her as a singularity, not as a product of her institution. Gina Haspel, while a war criminal, is by no means a “bad apple.” Nor are the countless other agents of torture who have executed it on the government’s behalf. As psychologist Philip Zimbardo noted about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, if there are too many bad apples it begs the question of a bad barrel, but if there are too many bad barrels it begs the question of bad barrel-makers.
Many have defended Gina Haspel on the Nuremberg-esque platform that she was simply following orders; torture was CIA protocol at the time. Now this is a ridiculous defense, but it does make one proper observation: that the torture was not just an independent decision but a following of institutional protocol. This is where our conversation about Gina Haspel should take us: to the abuses of the CIA, or other government institutions, as a matter of their very existence. The conversation does not end with a failed confirmation, but should continue until we can see these abuses, the ability to perform them, and the tendency to enable them, struck out of the institutional foundation of the CIA as a whole. Until then, we are merely playing ourselves into a false sense of moral satisfaction. Moral satisfaction which, dare I say, is just as reprehensibly pathological as torture itself.