As an American expat in Canada, I spent the four years of Bush’s second presidential term attempting to reassure myself and others that, deep down in the far-flung crannies of its proverbial heart, my homeland was pure and true. When my compatriots proceeded to elect the first person of colour to hold executive office in North America—who just so happens to be a gifted, endlessly quotable, and unfailingly photogenic politician to boot—I finally got the “I told you so” I’d secretly worried would never arrive. Gone was the anticipation of impending judgment at revealing my geographic origins; in was the cred, which doubled whenever I mentioned I paid a $50 Fedex fee to absentee vote for Obama. At last, I could start holding my U.S. passport face-up in the Pearson airport check-in queue, no longer guilty by association.
Perhaps it’s this lingering sense of continental elation—or, more accurately on my part, patriotic relief—that makes the declassified Bybee Memo especially difficult to stomach.
Of the four declassified “torture memos,” the August 1, 2002 memorandum prepared by circuit court judge Jay Bybee has garnered the most attention since its release to the public in April. The document reads like a gulag narrative: it lays out, in grisly detail, each of the various interrogation methods used to coerce information from suspected Al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. The ten chosen tactics, deemed by hip left-wing pundit Rachel Maddow as decidedly “1984-esque,” include such human rights atrocities as “walling,” “sleep deprivation,” “insects placed in a confinement box,” and the notorious waterboard.
Waterboarding first became a hot-button issue in 2007, with the controversy stemming from its description as an interrogation tactic designed to make the suspect “think” he is drowning. “I think that’s completely disingenuous, to a certain extent,” said former U.S. Navy interrogation instructor Malcolm Nance in response to this flimsy claim, in a November 2007 appearance on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. “The person is not ‘thinking’ that they’re drowning. Large quantities of water are entering them. The water can and does get into the lungs and again, it does degrade the respiratory process. If left to its own devices it will result in respiratory arrest and could result in death. So the person does not ‘think’ he is drowning, he is actually going through the process though not completely underwater.”
The other “not torture” tactics described aren’t much better. “Walling” involves forcefully slamming the restrained suspect against a “flexible false wall,” though the document insists the objective of the practice is to startle rather than induce significant injury. As with waterboarding, the memo insists the technique serves to give a convincing but ultimately benign illusion of bodily harm. The reassurance is cavalier: “In part, the idea is to create a sound that will make the impact seem far worse than it is and that will be far worse than any injury that might result from the action.” Well la-dee-da.
President Obama outlawed the practice of waterboarding as a method of questioning earlier this year, and the declassification of Bybee’s, as well as other memos, along with recent revelation of the 92 CIA-destroyed interrogation tapes during the Bush period, points to what the world already expected the Obama era would bring to the fore: renewed transparency and reconciliation for eight embarrassing years of American administrative malpractice. A lovely gesture, but is it enough?
Rather than receive penalty, Judge Jay Bybee has been awarded a lifetime appointment to a federal appeals court, which has a jurisdiction exceeded only by the Supreme Court. Here is an opportunity for the Obama administration to take real action, to use the dirty laundry revealed in the first 100 days in office as a launching initiative towards justice in the hundreds of days to follow. Until then, I might hold off on that American flag bikini.