Preface: I am using the word “evil” in its secular sense in this essay, as in a horrible, destructive act … religion is beyond the scope of this essay.
When someone fails to stand up to a heinous act, that leads to a whole chain of events.
It Enables More Destructive Acts
Initially, by failing to stand up to the bad act, we are enabling the person who committed it to do bigger and worse things in the future.
Army psychiatrist and Christian philosopher M. Scott Peck wrote extensively on evil in People of the Lie (since Peck was a psychiatrist and an empirical researcher, his investigation of the dynamics of those who commit heinous acts and the subsequent attempts to cover them up is very interesting, even for atheists who will disregard all religious overtones). As Peck wrote:
It is necessary that we first draw the distinction between evil and ordinary sin. It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people…The central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it.
And a longer passage:
We lie only when we are attempting to cover up something we know to be illicit. Some rudimentary form of conscience must precede the act of lying. There is no need to hide unless we first feel that something needs to be hidden. We come now to a sort of paradox. Evil people feel themselves to be perfect. At the same time, however, they have an unacknowledged sense of their own evil nature. Indeed, it is this very sense from which they are frantically trying to flee. The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense. At once and the same time, the evil are aware of their evil and desperately trying to avoid the awareness. Rather than blissfully lacking a sense of morality like the psychopath, they are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence of their evil under the rug of their own consciousness (or attempting to redefine their evil as good). The problem is not a defect of conscience, but the effort to deny the conscience its due. We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves. The wickedness of the evil is not committed directly, but indirectly as a part of this cover-up process. Evil originates not in the absence of guilt but in the effort to escape it. Since they will do almost anything to avoid the particular pain that comes from self-examination, under ordinary circumstances, the evil are the last people who would ever come to psychotherapy. The evil hate the light – the light of goodness that shows them up, the light of scrutiny that exposes them, the light of the truth that penetrates their deception.
So when people fail to stand up to the heinous acts of a bad person, they are empowering that person’s cover up, the very core of their propensity to do further bad acts in the future.
It Destroys Our Ability to Think Rationally
Moreover, failure to stand up to the bad act requires people to rationalize their failure to act, which in turn ends up literally warping their thinking process.
As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, people will go to extreme lengths to rationalize their failure to recognize bad actions by those in power:
Sociologists from four major research institutions investigated why so many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, years after it became obvious that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.
- Many Americans felt an urgent need to seek justification for a war already in progress
- Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.
- “For the most part people completely ignore contrary information.”
- “The study demonstrates voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information”
- People get deeply attached to their beliefs, and form emotional attachments that get wrapped up in their personal identity and sense of morality, irrespective of the facts of the matter.
- “We refer to this as ‘inferred justification, because for these voters, the sheer fact that we were engaged in war led to a post-hoc search for a justification for that war.
- “People were basically making up justifications for the fact that we were at war”
- “They wanted to believe in the link [between 9/11 and Iraq] because it helped them make sense of a current reality. So voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information, whether we think that is good or bad for democratic practice, does at least demonstrate an impressive form of creativity.
An article … in Alternet discussing the Sociological Inquiry article helps us to understand that the key to people’s active participation in searching for excuses for actions by the big boys is fear:
Subjects were presented during one-on-one interviews with a newspaper clip of this Bush quote: “This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaeda.”
The Sept. 11 Commission, too, found no such link, the subjects were told.
“Well, I bet they say that the commission didn’t have any proof of it,” one subject responded, “but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.”
Reasoned another: “Saddam, I can’t judge if he did what he’s being accused of, but if Bush thinks he did it, then he did it.”
Others declined to engage the information at all. Most curious to the researchers were the respondents who reasoned that Saddam must have been connected to Sept. 11, because why else would the Bush Administration have gone to war in Iraq?
The desire to believe this was more powerful, according to the researchers, than any active campaign to plant the idea.
Such a campaign did exist in the run-up to the war…
He won’t credit [politicians spouting misinformation] alone for the phenomenon, though.
“That kind of puts the idea out there, but what people then do with the idea … ” he said. “Our argument is that people aren’t just empty vessels. You don’t just sort of open up their brains and dump false information in and they regurgitate it. They’re actually active processing cognitive agents”…
The alternate explanation raises queasy questions for the rest of society.
“I think we’d all like to believe that when people come across disconfirming evidence, what they tend to do is to update their opinions,” said Andrew Perrin, an associate professor at UNC and another author of the study…
“The implications for how democracy works are quite profound, there’s no question in my mind about that,” Perrin said. “What it means is that we have to think about the emotional states in which citizens find themselves that then lead them to reason and deliberate in particular ways.”
Evidence suggests people are more likely to pay attention to facts within certain emotional states and social situations. Some may never change their minds. For others, policy-makers could better identify those states, for example minimizing the fear that often clouds a person’s ability to assess facts …
The Alternet article links to a must-read interview with psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, who explains:
A large body of evidence shows that momentarily [raising fear of death], typically by asking people to think about themselves dying, intensifies people’s strivings to protect and bolster aspects of their worldviews, and to bolster their self-esteem. The most common finding is that [fear of death] increases positive reactions to those who share cherished aspects of one’s cultural worldview, and negative reactions toward those who violate cherished cultural values or are merely different.
Investors – as with politicians or Americans in general – believe that “when [they] come across disconfirming evidence . . . . they tend to … update their opinions”, but in reality, they cling to the beliefs they formed during certain heightened emotional states, such as fear.
And once people form a belief, it can be almost impossible to get them to change their beliefs … even if confronted with contradictory information.
As NPR noted last July:
New research suggests that misinformed people rarely change their minds when presented with the facts — and often become even more attached to their beliefs.
A new body of research out of the University of Michigan suggests … that we base our opinions on beliefs and when presented with contradictory facts, we adhere to our original belief even more strongly.
The phenomenon is called backfire, and it plays an especially important role in how we shape and solidify our beliefs on immigration, the president’s place of birth, welfare and other highly partisan issues.
It’s threatening to us to admit that things we believe are wrong. And all of us, liberals and conservatives, you know, have some beliefs that aren’t true, and when we find that out, you know, it’s threatening to our beliefs and ourselves.
This isn’t a question of education, necessarily, or sophistication. It’s really about, it’s really about preserving that belief that we initially held.
Torture as a Quintessential Evil of the Last Decade
A good example of this dynamic is with torture.
Americans were first told by our government that we were not torturing anyone. Then, the government admitted it did a “little” waterboarding, but said that’s not torture, and that it was necessary to prevent more Al Qaeda attacks.
The truth, however, is that top experts in interrogation say that:
- Most of those tortured were innocent
- Torture has been used throughout history – not to gain information – but as a form of intimidation, to terrorize people into obedience. In other words, at its core, torture is a form of terrorism.
More importantly, the specific type of torture which was used the the U.S. in Iraq and Guantanamo was tailor-made to extract false confessions.
As I previously pointed out:
Senator Levin revealed that the the U.S. used torture techniques aimed at extracting false confessions.
McClatchy subsequently filled in some of the details:
Former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration…
For most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”
It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document…
When people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder,” he continued.”Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn’t any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam . . .
A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under “pressure” to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.
“While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq,” Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. “The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”
“I think it’s obvious that the administration was scrambling then to try to find a connection, a link (between al Qaida and Iraq),” [Senator] Levin said in a conference call with reporters. “They made out links where they didn’t exist.”
Levin recalled Cheney’s assertions that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer had met Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, in the Czech Republic capital of Prague just months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The FBI and CIA found that no such meeting occurred.
In other words, top Bush administration officials not only knowingly lied about a non-existent connection between Al Qaida and Iraq, but they pushed and insisted that interrogators use special torture methods aimed at extracting false confessions to attempt to create such a false linkage. See also this and this.
Paul Krugman eloquently summarized the truth about the type of torture used:
Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.
There’s a word for this: it’s evil.
Indeed, one of the two senior instructors from the Air Force team which taught U.S. servicemen how to resist torture by foreign governments when used to extract false confessions has blown the whistle on the true purpose behind the U.S. torture program.
As Truth Out reported yesterday:
Jessen’s notes were provided to Truthout by retired Air Force Capt. Michael Kearns, a “master” SERE instructor and decorated veteran who has previously held high-ranking positions within the Air Force Headquarters Staff and Department of Defense (DoD).
Kearns and his boss, Roger Aldrich, the head of the Air Force Intelligence’s Special Survial Training Program (SSTP), based out of Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, hired Jessen in May 1989. Kearns, who was head of operations at SSTP and trained thousands of service members, said Jessen was brought into the program due to an increase in the number of new SERE courses being taught and “the fact that it required psychological expertise on hand in a full-time basis.”
Jessen, then the chief of Psychology Service at the US Air Force Survival School, immediately started to work directly with Kearns on “a new course for special mission units (SMUs), which had as its goal individual resistance to terrorist exploitation.”
The course, known as SV-91, was developed for the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) branch of the US Air Force Intelligence Agency, which acted as the Executive Agent Action Office for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jessen’s notes formed the basis for one part of SV-91, “Psychological Aspects of Detention.”
Kearns was one of only two officers within DoD qualified to teach all three SERE-related courses within SSTP on a worldwide basis, according to a copy of a 1989 letter written Aldrich, who nominated him officer of the year.
The Jessen notes clearly state the totality of what was being reverse-engineered – not just ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ but an entire program of exploitation of prisoners using torture as a central pillar,” he said. “What I think is important to note, as an ex-SERE Resistance to Interrogation instructor, is the focus of Jessen’s instruction. It is exploitation, not specifically interrogation. And this is not a picayune issue, because if one were to ‘reverse-engineer’ a course on resistance to exploitation then what one would get is a plan to exploit prisoners, not interrogate them. The CIA/DoD torture program appears to have the same goals as the terrorist organizations or enemy governments for which SV-91 and other SERE courses were created to defend against: the full exploitation of the prisoner in his intelligence, propaganda, or other needs held by the detaining power, such as the recruitment of informers and double agents. Those aspects of the US detainee program have not generally been discussed as part of the torture story in the American press.”
Jessen wrote that cooperation is the “end goal” of the detainer, who wants the detainee “to see that [the detainer] has ‘total’ control of you because you are completely dependent on him, and thus you must comply with his wishes. Therefore, it is absolutely inevitable that you must cooperate with him in some way (propaganda, special favors, confession, etc.).”
Kearns said, based on what he has read in declassified government documents and news reports about the role SERE played in the Bush administration’s torture program, Jessen clearly “reverse-engineered” his lesson plan and used resistance methods to abuse “war on terror” detainees.
So we have the two main Air Force insiders concerning the genesis of the torture program confirming – with original notes – that the whole purpose of the torture program was to extract false confessions.
They Got the False Confessions They Wanted
The Miami Herald ran a story entitled “Alleged 9/11 mastermind: `I make up stories'”, noting:
Accused al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed complained that interrogators tortured lies out of him…
”I make up stories,” Mohammed said …
In broken English, he described an interrogation in which he was asked the location of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
”Where is he? I don’t know,” Mohammed said. ‘Then he torture me. Then I said, ‘Yes, he is in this area or this is al Qaeda which I don’t know him.’ I said no, they torture me.”
This is not new. It has already been documented that Mohammed confessed to crimes which he could not have committed, and that he said that he gave the interrogators a lot of false information – telling them what he thought they wanted to hear – in an attempt to stop the torture.
Indeed, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told the Red Cross:
During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop. I later told the interrogators that their methods were stupid and counterproductive. I’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent in order to make the ill-treatment stop wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the U.S.
And see this Washington Post report.
Dick Cheney claimed that waterboarding Khalid Shaikh Mohammed stopped a terror attack on L.A., but as the Chicago Tribune notes:
The Bush administration claimed that the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed helped foil a planned 2002 attack on Los Angeles — forgetting that he wasn’t captured until 2003.
(see this confirmation from the BBC: “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed … was captured in Pakistan in 2003”).
And as I pointed out last year:
[A]ccording to NBC news:
- Much of the 9/11 Commission Report was based upon the testimony of people who were tortured
- At least four of the people whose interrogation figured in the 9/11 Commission Report have claimed that they told interrogators information as a way to stop being “tortured.”
- One of the Commission’s main sources of information was tortured until he agreed to sign a confession that he was NOT EVEN ALLOWED TO READ
- The 9/11 Commission itself doubted the accuracy of the torture confessions, and yet kept their doubts to themselves
Remember, as discussed above, the torture techniques used by the Bush administration to try to link Iraq and 9/11 were specifically geared towards creating false confessions (they were techniques created by the communists to be used in show trials).
The above-linked NBC news report quotes a couple of legal experts to this effect:
Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says he is “shocked” that the Commission never asked about extreme interrogation measures.
“If you’re sitting at the 9/11 Commission, with all the high-powered lawyers on the Commission and on the staff, first you ask what happened rather than guess,” said Ratner, whose center represents detainees at Guantanamo. “Most people look at the 9/11 Commission Report as a trusted historical document. If their conclusions were supported by information gained from torture, therefore their conclusions are suspect.“…
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center for Law and Security at New York University’s School of Law, put it this way: “[I]t should have relied on sources not tainted. It calls into question how we were willing to use these interrogations to construct the narrative.”
I also pointed out:
The official 9/11 Commission Report states:
Chapters 5 and 7 rely heavily on information obtained from captured al Qaeda members. A number of these “detainees” have firsthand knowledge of the 9/11 plot. Assessing the truth of statements by these witnesses-sworn enemies of the United States-is challenging. Our access to them has been limited to the review of intelligence reports based on communications received from the locations where the actual interrogations take place. We submitted questions for use in the interrogations, but had no control over whether, when, or how questions of particular interest would be asked. Nor were we allowed to talk to the interrogators so that we could better judge the credibility of the detainees and clarify ambiguities in the reporting.
In other words, the 9/11 Commissioners were not allowed to speak with the detainees, or even their interrogators. Instead, they got their information third-hand.
The Commission didn’t really trust the interrogation testimony. For example, one of the primary architects of the 9/11 Commission Report, Ernest May, said in May 2005:
We never had full confidence in the interrogation reports as historical sources.
As I noted last May:
Newsweek is running an essay by [New York Times investigative reporter] Philip Shenon saying [that the 9/11 Commission Report was unreliable because most of the information was based on the statements of tortured detainees]:
The commission appears to have ignored obvious clues throughout 2003 and 2004 that its account of the 9/11 plot and Al Qaeda’s history relied heavily on information obtained from detainees who had been subjected to torture, or something not far from it.
The panel raised no public protest over the CIA’s interrogation methods, even though news reports at the time suggested how brutal those methods were. In fact, the commission demanded that the CIA carry out new rounds of interrogations in 2004 to get answers to its questions.
That has troubling implications for the credibility of the commission’s final report. In intelligence circles, testimony obtained through torture is typically discredited; research shows that people will say anything under threat of intense physical pain.
And yet it is a distinct possibility that Al Qaeda suspects who were the exclusive source of information for long passages of the commission’s report may have been subjected to “enhanced” interrogation techniques, or at least threatened with them, because of the 9/11 Commission….
Information from CIA interrogations of two of the three—KSM and Abu Zubaydah—is cited throughout two key chapters of the panel’s report focusing on the planning and execution of the attacks and on the history of Al Qaeda.
Footnotes in the panel’s report indicate when information was obtained from detainees interrogated by the CIA. An analysis by NBC News found that more than a quarter of the report’s footnotes—441 of some 1,700—referred to detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation program, including the trio who were waterboarded.
Commission members note that they repeatedly pressed the Bush White House and CIA for direct access to the detainees, but the administration refused. So the commission forwarded questions to the CIA, whose interrogators posed them on the panel’s behalf.
The commission’s report gave no hint that harsh interrogation methods were used in gathering information, stating that the panel had “no control” over how the CIA did its job; the authors also said they had attempted to corroborate the information “with documents and statements of others.”
But how could the commission corroborate information known only to a handful of people in a shadowy terrorist network, most of whom were either dead or still at large?
Former senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a Democrat on the commission, told me last year he had long feared that the investigation depended too heavily on the accounts of Al Qaeda detainees who were physically coerced into talking. …
Kerrey said it might take “a permanent 9/11 commission” to end the remaining mysteries of September 11.
This essay will not go too far down the rabbit hole of 9/11.
The point is that the government used a specific set of torture techniques created to extract false confessions which would support a rationale for the Iraq war and the war on terror and which would allow a superficial reading of September 11th itself.
If we fail to stand up to this act of evil – the use of torture to obtain false confessions – we are not only complicit, but we will also eventually drive ourselves crazy in trying to rationalize what was done in our name.
It Disempowers Us and Leads to the Loss of All of Our Rights
As Yves Smith writes today about the Truth Out article:
This revelation raises troubling questions about how programs like this relate to the coarsening of American society. Some readers will no doubt argue that trying to connect the dots between programs designed for use in combat settings and broad social trends is overreaching. Yet look at the themes Jessen stresses: control, dependency, compliance and cooperation. To use one pet example, why are people so apathetic in the wake of widespread abuses by banks, first the extortions that took place during the bailouts, and now the continued flouting of the law in mortgage servicing and foreclosures?
Although there was no single architect like Jessen for the various elements of our current economic paradigm, they do seem to work to weaken, and perhaps in some cases, to break the will of ordinary citizens to stand up to their tormentors large and small. A policy preference for higher levels of unemployment (to keep inflation down and workers in their place) have reduced many if not most individuals’ sense of control of their own destiny and increased their sense of dependence. When job tenures are short and replacement work at the same level of pay can be hard to get, that alone produces a good deal of the sought-after state, compliance.
Add to that an information apparatus which allows employers to see minor transgressions like late payment and misdemeanors such as getting arrested at protests, and you have effective mechanisms for social control. And there are those who look at the abuse of Bradley Manning, which would have seemed inconceivable fifteen years ago, and wonder who else might be deemed to be enough of a threat to merit similar mistreatment.
In other words, the failure to stand up to a heinous act not only destroys our ability to think, but also makes it less likely we will stand up to future bad acts … thus disempowering us.
That is the road to poverty, and a complete loss of all of our rights …