In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, the cynical Captain Segura notes the existence of a “torturable class”. It consists, he says, ‘of the poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of central Europe and the Orient. Of course, in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. ’

If the Mamdouh Habib case casts some doubt on the last sentence, in general the point still holds. The deaths of three thousand Americans in New York change the world forever; the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis pass without notice.

But Segura might also have discussed the torturing class — that is, the kinds of people who can do this stuff and get away with it.

In that category, we can place the CIA agents whose professional responsibility it was to hurt detainees. President Obama has now restated his position on according the actual torturers immunity. “For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted,” he said.

Obama’s stance on not prosecuting interrogators who just followed orders has been almost universally accepted. But morally, it’s still utterly, utterly rank. The whole point of the Nuremberg precedent was that, however their instructions read, soldiers were capable of their own moral judgements about, say, exterminating prisoners. Likewise here. Irrespective of what some lawyerly memo contained, the agent responsible for dragging a babbling, screaming prisoner into a dungeon somewhere and then pouring water into his throat until he choked knew what he was doing was torture, especially after the hundredth time. Why couldn’t the interrogators have said no? What would have happened to them? A transfer? Demotion? Some of the defendants at Nuremberg faced much worse than that for disobeying orders — and we still prosecuted them.

You see the existence of a torturing class even more clearly in the flap caused by President Obama’s suggestion that the attorney-general might still assess whether Bush administration officials committed a crime by authorizing torture tactics.

It’s a no brainer, right? If high officials broke the law (and yes, Virginia, there are laws against torture), they should be prosecuted.

Well, no.

For brevity’s sake, let’s just quote only one of the reactions, a joint statement by Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham with the independent senator Joe Lieberman. “In the interest of national security, it is the future, rather than the past, on which we believe America’s gaze must be fixed,” they intone.

You might remember John McCain from a certain presidential bid, in which his own experiences as a Vietnam POW featured quite heavily. During that time, did anyone suggest that McCain wasn’t really tortured, that the sleep deprivation and stress positions to which he was subjected were no worse than a fraternity hazing, that McCain should simply look forward rather than obsess about the past? Of course not — but then McCain doesn’t belong to the torturable class, does he?

Another of the “don’t look back” trio is Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who enthusiastically supported the Republican pursuit of Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Lying about consensual sex? Appoint a special investigation! Torturing people? Why, it’s ludicrous to even suggest that the law should be applied.

The remarkable consensus in favour of illegality becomes more explicable given the new revelations suggesting that harsher interrogation techniques related, at least in part, to the administration’s attempt to link Saddam Hussein and al Qaida, and thus justify its misbegotten Iraq war. McClatchy quotes a former intelligence official:

There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used. The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But 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.

When interrogators protested that no links could be found, senior administration officials “blew that off and kept insisting that we’d overlooked something, that the interrogators weren’t pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information.”

In other words, despite all the bluster about ticking time bombs and other Jack Bauer scenarios, it seems plausible that one reason the Bush administration was prepared to torture was to avoid political embarrassment.

There have been hints of this before. Why? The journalist Ron Suskind noted how Bush boasted about Abu Zubaydah’s capture — and then, when Zubaydah proved to be a mentally ill fantasist, needed something to back his claims.

“I said he was important,” the President said to George Tenet of the CIA. “You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?”

“No Sir, Mr. President” — and in came the torturers, with Zubaydah eventually waterboarded 83 times.

Had a foreign leader waterboarded an American so as not to lose face, the world would now be at war. But George Bush belongs to the torturing class. Move on; nothing to see here.

Peter Fray

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