“Why are we talking about this at the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”
—Attorney General John Ashcroft

Mark Danner’s 14,000-word scoop in the April 9 New York Review of Books will turn your coffee cold. Read it anyway. He got a copy of the Red Cross report on torture at CIA black sites and wants to ruin his readers’ day with blood and shit and shame. Abu Ghraib was amateur hour.

Americans hoped this had all been packed off to Texas with an unlamented ex-president. But Danner drags it out: “the monumental decisions taken after the attacks of September 11, 2001—decisions about rendition, surveillance, interrogation—lie strewn about us still, unclaimed and unburied, like corpses freshly dead.”

Back when George W. Bush announced, in a show of public cleansing, that “high-value detainees” shuttled between secret facilities would be sent to Guantanamo where the Red Cross could vouch for their wellbeing, did he think they wouldn’t mention their lost years? The similarity of the prisoners accounts’ attests to their veracity. 

In some cases, the lack of predictable gore disorients. Strapped to a bed in a very white room. Bright light. Freezing cold. Loud music. Nakedness. Time suspended. “I could not sleep at all the first two to three weeks. If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face.” A ticket to madness is surely more legal but is it less cruel than physical pain?

There was plenty of that too. Daily beatings. “A towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed into the wall.” Forced standing with arms shackled overhead. Confinement in tomb-like boxes. We already knew about the waterboarding. “A doctor was always present, standing out of sight behind the head of [the] bed, but I saw him when he came to fix a clip to my finger which was connected to a machine. I think it was to measure my pulse and oxygen content in my blood. So they could take me to [the] breaking point.” At every way station, the White House signed off on this “alternative set of procedures”—while reassuring that we do not torture.

Danner isn’t naive: “These men almost certainly have blood on their hands, a great deal of blood. There is strong reason to believe that they had critical parts in planning and organizing terrorist operations that caused the deaths of thousands of people. … From everything we know, many or all of these men deserve to be tried and punished.”

Now they can’t be. As he pointedly notes, “The use of torture deprives the society whose laws have been so egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice. Torture destroys justice. Torture in effect relinquishes this sacred right in exchange for speculative benefits…”

After too many episodes of “24,” we’ve convinced ourselves that a single mastermind holds the key to disarming a ticking bomb if only we can pry it from him. But intelligence work isn’t tailored to fit an hour of primetime. Khaled Shaik 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’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent … wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red alerts being placed in the U.S.”

Surely he offered up some actionable tips, but were they worth it? Tally the cost. Vindication of our enemies’ nasty caricature. The moral, legal, and political mutations required to press a policy against our creed. And perhaps worst of all, Danner’s essential insight: an inability to prosecute men who probably deserve far worse than bright lights and loud music because we let pique outrun justice.