The Abyss Stares Back, Colltalers
It could be said that it was a coincidence waiting to happen. Two major reports on government torture were published in the U.S. and Brazil almost at the same time last week: the Senate Committee’s Report on C.I.A.’s Use of Torture, and the report of the National Truth Commission (CNV) on human rights violations perpetrated by the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
It may not have been by chance, after all, since last Wednesday marked the International Human Rights Day. And in any case, both reports were expected, feared, and suffered delays and last-minute attempts to be kept under wraps until an unspecified later date.
But unlike annual surveys by organizations that track abuses, these two have the weight of being government-issued. The ‘comprehensive review of the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program’ was set up by the Senate in 2009, while Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former prisoner of the military, sent to congress the bill that created the CNV, approved in 2011.
The reports, albeit partial, incomplete, and heavily criticized, reveal nevertheless a similarly horrible picture of what happens when government power is left unchecked. Graphic descriptions of interrogation practices used by the CIA after Sept 11, and the Brazilian military during its reign of terror, can mine any confidence left on the ability of a security apparatus to heed by the law.
Chilling similarities – whose gory and horrendous details are all over the global media, mercifully sparing us the need to reprint them here – and differences aside, what these partial summaries represent is a step, however timid, towards accountability and redress of justice for hundreds, many of them certifiably innocent, who suffered and even perished at the hands of their butchers.
One notable difference: while the C.I.A. report names those tortured in the bowels of prisons located outside the U.S., acknowledging responsibility mainly by implication, the Brazilian one specifically names over 300 members of the security and paramilitary forces that did the generals’ dirty work, inexplicably leaving off many of the victims who were killed or disappeared.
That may be the result of the different attributions of both reports, but it also shows the pressure their authors endured to produce something that may serve as a foundation to further action. At the end of the day, it’s almost a miracle that they came out at all.
They were both overdue. Brazil remains one of the few Latin American countries still resisting a thorough investigation of crimes committed by the troops that stormed deposed democratically elected João Goulart in 1964, unlike Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, to name its closest neighbors. It even passed an amnesty law for those accused of torture, which the report now all but voided.
And since the terrible Sept. 11 events, a paranoid and, as it’s now clear, ineffective U.S. doctrine of ‘national security’ has pervaded all segments of society, restricting citizen rights and, as with the other dark titan of American security agencies, the NSA, building a surveillance network that continues, secretly, collecting information on almost every person in the country and abroad.
Curiously, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the committee, once ostensibly supported the NSA’s spying tactics – ‘it’s called protecting America,’ she said in January 2013 – only to backpedal when she realized that she too, and her staff, were being watched.
We’re seeing the same reaction again. As expected, a unified platoon of apologists in both hemispheres jumped at the opportunity to look good before the intelligence community, by criticizing the findings and defending torture, rape, and waterboarding, as ‘justified’ means to win the war on terror. It’s also expected that those responsible would fret and kick the hot potato to someone else’s patio.
That former President George W. Bush, and members of his administration, and former CIA officials would emphatically defend their actions wouldn’t surprise a camel. Neither that Dick Cheney would throw him and everyone else under the bus, by declaring that unlike popular belief, everyone knew that they were breaking the law, as if that somehow justifies him breaking it too.
But aside the obscene role played by two overpaid psychologists in the program, there are those who should be denouncing the immorality of torturing prisoners for information, but instead, all but endorse the barbarian practices. Case in point: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his misguided musings about the lack of specific reference in the Constitution about it.
In Brazil, too, the aging apologists were both expected and irrelevant, while those named in the report remain hidden in the limbo of impunity, only broken by some diatribe to a local paper. The heaviest hit came, naturally, from the military establishment. Weeks before the release, a group of generals and former members of the Armed Forces criticized the report for being biased.
Essentially, their ‘we did not start the fire’ defense tries to divert the issue away from accountability to whether they should or should not have acted, which is, of course, besides the point. Similar to the ‘following orders’ credo, such stand implies that no responsibility is due by those defending the status quo. Except that in their case, they did start the fire and tear up the constitution.
Their manifest states that no apology is due to the Brazilian people, widespread illegal incarcerations, torture, political assassination, censorship, and discretionary laws. The once feared Clube Naval also issued a note, calling the CNV ‘illegal,’ and its findings, void.
Equally expected is the reaction of former members of the security establishment, now aging and all but irrelevant to the mainstream of Brazilian politics, but still arrogant. The curiosity comes from a former punk musician, and now staunch right-wing advocate, Lobão, whose claim to fame is to voice a corollary of pseudo-liberalism and posed rebelliousness, along with a couple of 1980s hits.
He, and many right of his positions, have all a place in the diversified, messy, and yes, far from functional, Brazilian democracy. But tethered to such a politically innocuous segment of the spectrum (nouveau droit rich?), Lobão, who has no public service record, risks being taken as an inarticulate buffoon, a Brazilian Stephen Colbert sans humor, who can’t help disguise his inflated self worth.
Now that they’re part of the public record, both reports may be implemented, augmented, argued about, challenged, detracted, and even, heaven forbid, have redactions removed in the case of the senatorial summary. But neither can be dismissed, which leads us to wonder what should come next. A number of obvious answers come to mind, along with a few others that may be up to discussion.
The CNV, which was formed with the specific mandate of compiling the report, has fulfilled its mission and now folds. After an ample, national debate on the findings, and possibly an victim-focused addendum, the next steps could include an instruction phase and, ultimately, start a judicial process to assign proper responsibility and reparations to those involved and their families.
Back in the U.S., the Senate has the authority to extend the inquiry and pressure the C.I.A., as well as other intel agencies, to disclose their own war on terror records, a task that’s proven costly and has a surprising opponent: the Obama administration.
Internationally, both reports received a great deal of attention. The CNV was praised by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who focused on the document’s potential to jump-start a process of national reconciliation. Despite her clout as a survivor of the dictatorship, however, President Rousseff may be too weakened to pursue an aggressive followup agenda on the matter.
With the C.I.A. report, there are other implications, and so far, U.S. allies have offered only guarded support for the findings, perhaps concerned about how a global inquiry may compromise their own anti-terror tactics. There’s been plenty of criticism, though, however expected, from nations long in the cross hairs of American gun barrels, and naturally, its most ardent enemies.
One thing is almost sure: there’s no way forward without a due judicial process, following their publication. The findings are simply too serious, extremely tragic, and downright illegal to be ignored, and to deny their day in court would be to deny the need of having a judicial process in the first place. Or, allegations stop being so when proven by facts, and the next step is necessarily the law.
Much of what will happen next will be up to presidents Obama and Dilma, one with less than two years left in office, and the other just reelected. The American president may have a tougher time, as his administration hasn’t really distanced itself from the Bush legacy of secrecy and torture. Cynics may say that it has updated its counterterrorism tactics with political assassinations by drones.
The Brazilian president, on the other hand, has four years to tackle what all other civilian presidents before her have avoided: confront the armed forces, before most of the protagonists of the dictatorship die of old age. Demanding secret files the Army may or may not have kept, however, won’t be a task to be accomplished on her own; the whole Brazilian society has to be on board.
If that happens, neither the usually rightwing-aligned private sector, nor those doing its deed, will stop the march of history to put this chapter behind and move forward. Sadly, perhaps the biggest challenge in Brazil is to get the society to care enough about it.
That will be vital too in the U.S., of course, and the prospects are a bit stiffer, as Republicans have already criticized the report on C.I.A. and may prevent the followup process from progressing, when they take charge of the majority in both chambers of congress.
Ultimately, though, the floodgates may have been opened for good now, and no amount of political calculation may stanch the flow of further revelations and outrage caused by the continuous failure of brutal methods of interrogation to produce actionable results.
We’re not ready to declare a rosy new day in the Americas just yet, as there still a lot to be accounted for, both societies continue busy reeling from under-performing economic conditions, and all that. Also left for another time is how both reports may impact the related, and red-hot, present issue of police brutality and over-militarization, which the CNV has made recommendations about it.
‘When you look into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you,’ as Nietzsche put it. No civilized society can call itself as such if it allows what’s described in both reports to happen with impunity. Or we risk becoming the monsters we claim to set up ourselves to slay. Have a great one. WC