CIA torturers should sue the federal government

The Bush administration told people torture would help America. They were wrong — and the torturers are paying the price.

Torturers suffer grave emotional consequences.
(Image credit: David McNew/Getty Images)

It's always the people lowest on the social ladder who face the worst of America's vicious criminal justice system. Consider the torturers at Abu Ghraib. A policy designed and implemented at the very highest levels of the Bush administration was blamed on a few low-level scapegoats. Hence, while a few actual torturers — the people swinging the rubber mallets, locking the handcuffs, pouring lungs full of water, and so on — were punished, the vast majority of the architects of torture got off scot-free. It seems too much of the American power structure was implicated to do more than punish low-level soldiers who tortured, people like Lynndie England and Charles Graner.

As a result, aside from the Senate torture report (most of which still has not been released) and a few independent studies, there has been no real accounting or reckoning with the fact of American torture.

But despite the lack of legal punishment, most American torturers probably suffer terribly from what they have done. Research shows that for normal people, the act of torture psychologically harms the torturer almost as much as it does the victim.

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Torturers should sue the government for restitution. It would at least offer a modicum of accountability.

This idea comes from Professor Shane O'Mara, in his recent book Why Torture Doesn't Work, which summarizes much empirical work on the effects of torture on those who carry it out. Humans are social creatures, and we have empathic systems hard-wired into our perceptive apparatus. Humans wince when they see others receive electric shocks. They cry when they see animals hurt. Formal studies in which people are made to watch another person endure a small pain are helpless to prevent that system from firing — even if they have been informed that the person has been anesthetized and cannot feel anything.

The empathic system is why it's so disturbing to see someone be badly injured. Torturers, who are deliberately suppressing that system to inflict grievous harm on a helpless person, will likely suffer worse consequences. "Requiring individuals to torture another human being as part of their employment would seem to present a real and meaningful danger to the long-term well-being of employees," O'Mara writes.

And indeed, accounts of veteran torturers bear this out. One case study of this can be found in James Risen's recent book Pay Any Price. He tells the story of Damien Corsetti, who also carried out torture at Abu Ghraib, describing him as an "emotional cripple" as a result of severe torture-induced PTSD, suffering addiction, depression, rage attacks, and other problems. (Unusually for the source of such a condition, the VA has granted him full disability.)

The military and the CIA sold the torture regime to the country and themselves as part of a necessary program to keep the nation safe. Except it turns out it was all for nothing. As is now extremely well-established, the torture program was worthless for interrogation; it was just a source of suffering and death and a blight on America's moral reputation. That in turn means that the psychological harm endured by all the veteran torturers was completely pointless.

Don't get me wrong, the act of torture is still a moral abomination. Torturers deserve condemnation for ignorance and immoral acts at the least (indeed, many report suffering crippling guilt). But worse by far are the high-level politicians, bureaucrats, and legal hacks — people like Dick Cheney, John Yoo, Donald Rumsfeld, and David Addington — who designed the torture program and forced it into use over the loud objections of much of the security apparatus. For them, torture was a way to demonstrate toughness and nothing else — and they abused the patriotism of soldiers and contractors to do it. Moreover, those far from the abuse do not suffer the psychological consequences.

Multiple civil lawsuits against the government would be no substitute for a truth and reconciliation commission. But it would provide a relatively open, high-profile forum to discuss the reality of the government torture program, and a way to pry additional evidence out of the government, though it will likely try to invoke the state secrets privilege to prevent the disclosure of classified information on the grounds that it would harm national security. But at this point, hoping for a few scraps of justice and accountability may be the best we can do.

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