Many Americans have condemned the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used in the War on Terror as a transgression of human rights abhorrent to American principles and traditions. But the United States has done almost nothing to prosecute past abuses or prevent future violations. Tracing this knotty contradiction from the 1950s to 2012 in his book Torture and impunity, historian Alfred W. McCoy probes the political and cultural dynamics that have made impunity for torture a bipartisan policy of the U.S. government.
During the Cold War, McCoy argues, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency covertly funded psychological experiments designed to weaken a subject’s resistance to interrogation. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the CIA revived these harsh methods, while U.S. media was flooded with seductive images that normalized torture for many Americans. Ten years later, the U.S. had failed to punish the perpetrators or the powerful who commanded them, and continued to exploit intelligence extracted under torture by surrogates from Somalia to Afghanistan. Although Washington has publicly distanced itself from torture, disturbing images from the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are seared into human memory, doing lasting damage to America’s moral authority as a world leader.
As 2014 draws to a close, a U.S. Senate investigation has documented the use of extensive use of many kinds of torture by the CIA in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and has presented further evidence that such techniques were not actually effective for gaining crucial information.
In 2012, an Italian court convicted 23 CIA operatives of kidnapping a Muslim cleric under the U.S. program of “extraordinary rendition.” The cleric, Abu Omar, was seized from the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt, where he was tortured during a four-year imprisonment. The Americans were all convicted in absentia after the United States government refused to hand them over. View a 2012 interview with Alfred McCoy about this policy of impunity.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin– Madison. His many books include Policing America’s Empire and A Question of Torture. Torture and Impunity is published by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of the book series, Critical Human Rights, edited by Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus.
“A masterful account of an appalling national drift toward accepting torture as part of our culture and polity.”—Alex Gibney, director, Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side
“This book gives the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about the use of torture by the United States intelligence services.”—Jennifer Harbury, author of Truth, Torture, and the American Way
“A fascinating and disturbing book, providing the most authoritative account of torture yet available and conforming to the best traditions of scholarship.”—Richard Falk, Princeton University
“McCoy, our finest thinker on the issue of torture, describes its legalization under Bush and the damage caused to morality, law, and our future by Obama’s granting of impunity to the torturers. Readers will come away with the understanding that the United States’ commitment to human rights was tested by 9/11—and it failed.”—Michael Ratner, president emeritus, Center for Constitutional Rights