I need to apologize. I used to be a torture apologist, and I was wrong. Back then we tried to dress it up by calling it “enhanced interrogation,” but that was only because deep down we all knew the truth. Torture is a bad word, and we’re the good guys.
In a public speaking class, I gave a short speech defending “enhanced interrogation.” It makes me sick when I think about how passionately I argued for my naïve beliefs, and how blind I was to confirmation bias. If my instructor at the time or fellow students read this, please don’t remember me that way. I literally face-palm when I remember that moment.
Back in college, I was benefiting from my unassailable status as a veteran when making policy statements. During the heated debates over the Iraq war, Americans were so badly beaten with the flag, that one would have to throw a puppy off a cliff before you could criticize the actions of soldiers.
I had spent over five years in the Marines, four of them overseas. That’s like getting a Bachelor’s of Science in How to Kill Bad Guys. And they were all bad. There was no grey area. Each as evil and two dimensional as a Disney villain.
My ace in the hole? If some pinko-Commie tried to tell me that torture was ineffective or wrong, I’d hit him with an anecdote so good that it shut the conversation down instantly: In 2004, I was part of a small team of Marines in Liberia. One day, we were called in to meet with the CIA’s station chief. There was a hit list, and all our names were on it. He must have had a snatch team pick up some warlord’s lackey and put the screws to him in a tin-roof shack out in the jungle. So when I would drop the line, “I’m still alive, and ask me if it was worth it,” it was over.
But did I really owe my survival to information gleaned via torture? No. Did the CIA use torture to get the list from some would-be hit man? No.
Sometime after, the same officer tried to recruit me to join “the company” after I went to college, and my imagination came alive with visions of “Feibleman, Ben Feibleman,” International Man of Mystery. But the more he revealed about the job, the more normal it seemed: Go out, meet your counterparts from the local government. Liaise with the local police forces. Meet a few regular non-government contacts. It’s police work. And one of the people he talked to told him, “Hey, we found this list.”
It took years for me to unlearn the falsehoods I believed about war, politics, and human nature. I studied International Politics and History at Columbia, with a particular focus on counter-terrorism and the politics and culture of the Middle East. I read too many books, and wrote too many papers to continue to believe the false narrative. I read the Quran from front to back and even took a stab at the language. (You want to know pain? Take an Arabic language intensive.) The more I learned, the sillier the action-hero notions of torture seemed.
It’s been ten years since Liberia, and I’m sad that it took me that long to learn how wrong I was. Moreover, I wish I hadn’t contributed to such a lie by defending it so vehemently. So, taking my own advice with regards to “enhanced interrogation”, I’m going to shut the fuck up in my defense of torture, and voice the fuck up to do my part to squash this toxic lie that it works, or that it’s somehow justifiable. It’s not.