January 17, 2020

‘The Report’ Is the Closest Thing We Have to Seeing the Truth About Torture

Still from "The Report." Photo courtesy Amazon Studios.

We have desensitized ourselves to the actual meaning of the word “torture” with phrases like “this class is torture.” But the word can be defined as “the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.”

And now torture is the subject of a major motion picture from Amazon, available for streaming. “The Report” stars Adam Driver as Dan Jones, the Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who led the investigation into the CIA’s torture program.

Although the film is new, torture has existed throughout history and continues today.

The systematic use of torture in criminal procedures dates back to the earliest civilizations. Scenes depicting torture and corporal punishment are on ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian monuments. The first records of using torture to extract confessions from people are in the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu and the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.

Three thousand years ago, societies used violent and horrific actions to force confessions out of human beings wanting to put an end to their torture. Although this tactic has proven to be ineffective in gaining the truth, it has not stopped the modern world, including the U.S. government, from continuing this horrific and immoral practice known as torture.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, in the face of the terror and fear, the U.S. government, through the hands of the military and CIA, authorized a brutal and utterly inhumane program of torture against enemy combatants, particularly at Guantanamo Bay and in CIA black sites around the world. “The Report” tells the story of how the Senate Intelligence Committee took on the CIA and uncovered the truth about its failed torture program.

The film is named after and brings to life the 6,000 page “Torture Report.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (played by Annette Benning), who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, releases a 500-page summary of it at the end of “The Report.” The full 6,000-page “Torture Report” still is classified.

“This is not some Hollywood gangbuster movie; this is the closest thing we have to seeing the truth.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation was prompted by revelations CIA’s Director of the National Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, and his top deputy, Gina Haspel, ordered the destruction of videotapes the CIA recorded of its torture sessions. The order to destroy the tapes went against specific instructions from the George W. Bush White House, violated a federal court order and was opposed by members of Congress.

It has been said that to inflict torture on another human being, one needs to see that human being as not “a person.” By making the subject an object, not a living, breathing, sentient being, it becomes possible to think the pain and suffering one is inflicting is not wrong — because that person is not a person. 

This flies directly in the face of my faith, and all faiths, which sees human beings not as objects but as souls created in the image of God — all deserving of compassion and dignity. This is not to say people who commit acts of terror shouldn’t be arrested, tried and imprisoned if found guilty; that is the justice system on which our country is based.

However, the following is what happened to more than 100 detainees in the black sites around the world, outside the light of justice, in the cover of darkness and secrecy:

The summary of “The Torture Report” described acts including waterboarding to the point of inducing convulsion and vomiting, as well as medically unnecessary rectal feedings. One detainee was waterboarded 183 times. Another detainee was chained, partly unclothed, to a concrete floor and left to die of hypothermia. Others were stripped, hooded, bound with Mylar tape and dragged through corridors while being slapped and punched. The CIA placed detainees in ice-water “baths” to induce hypothermia and threatened to sexually abuse or otherwise harm family members of detainees. The CIA also imprisoned a developmentally disabled family member of a detainee solely for the purpose of forcing the detainee to provide information, using his recorded crying in an attempt to do so.

It is sickening to me to even write these words, yet it is the most insignificant of feelings compared with what the people who received this torture experienced; and I believe the damage done to those who inflicted the torture — namely the agents, officers and soldiers — to their minds, souls and hearts is nearly as grave.

As the film brings these horrific stains on our nation’s history to the big screen, I sincerely hope the American people will see the full 6,000 page report, allowing us to read the truth of what went on in our name but without our knowledge. This is not some Hollywood gangbuster movie; this is the closest thing we have to seeing the truth. Let us hope we can get the real truth from the source. It is the least we can do a decade later, even as people continue to sit in prison without having been accused of a crime, tried or convicted. If not, are we any better than the ancient societies from 3,000 years ago?

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater serves on the executive committee of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.