Rudy's Torture Talk

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

On the playground, lo these many years ago, I was shooting baskets when an older boy ordered me off the court. This was just like the movies, I reasoned, and so I stood my ground and instantly got punched right in the mouth. I went down, and as I did, I remember thinking this was not at all like the movies. It hurt. It really hurt.

The realization that life is not a movie has inexplicably yet to occur to Rudy Giuliani, despite the horrors of Sept. 11. Mistaking something he must have seen in the movies for real life, he mocked the alleged softies who condemn torture of any kind, saying of sleep deprivation, "They talk about sleep deprivation. I mean, on that theory, I'm getting tortured running for president of the United States. That's plain silly."

It's not silly, though, to Orson Swindle. He spent six years and four months as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and was subjected to beatings and sleep deprivation. One time, he went about 20 days without sleep. I asked him if he considered it torture.

"Oh, yes."

Swindle's account of his sleep deprivation lacks precision. Some of the time he was hallucinating, and so he relied on the reports of others to determine how long he was forced to stay awake. His jailers wanted him to write a propaganda letter to Sen. Edward Kennedy. Ultimately, Swindle did. In the end, people being tortured usually give their jailers what they want -- the truth, a lie, something in between. Torture can be an unreliable interrogation tool.

But in the chest-beating contest that has become the GOP presidential race, neither the efficacy of torture nor the damage it has done to America's public image is questioned much. Along with Giuliani, both Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney think that only the excessively squeamish are appalled by waterboarding or the exceedingly bad rep of the Guantanamo Bay prison. They want Gitmo kept open -- more Bush than the Bushies, in this case: The administration is looking to close it.

Romney bases his approval of Guantanamo on a visit there. Despite having a very keen eye, he noticed no torture and so he has endorsed the facility. As for Thompson and Giuliani, they have not been to Guantanamo, but they, too, know the prison is needed. For some reason, they can't imagine transferring the detainees to the American prison system, which is what the Bush administration appears to be considering, and where some very bad people are now being held. What much of the world thinks about Guantanamo -- near-universal condemnation pretty much sums it up -- does not concern these presidential candidates.

John McCain, who is understandably appalled by the casual advocacy of torture, noted that Giuliani and the others in the GOP field come by their faux toughness without benefit of military service. This is a fair point, because as both McCain and Colin Powell have noted, all a POW has going for him is the hope of reciprocity. If we don't torture, maybe they won't, either.

This means nothing to Giuliani. He rebutted McCain with one of his signature your-mother-wears-a-mustache responses. McCain, he said, has "never run a city, never run a state, never run a government." Yes, but he has been tortured.

McCain's experience, though, makes no impression on Giuliani. He likened "intensive questioning," the term of art for a wee bit of torture, to what he practiced as New York's U.S. attorney and then mayor: "If I didn't use intensive questioning, there would be a lot of Mafia guys running around New York right now."

Is he serious? Did he waterboard the Gambinos? Did he deprive the Genovese family of sleep? Did he hang the Colombos by their thumbs? Did he bombard the Luccheses with opera from a regional company?

You could dismiss Giuliani's statements as campaign hot air and leave it at that. But to those who know something about his time as mayor, it is reminiscent of Giuliani's scary lack of empathy for victims and a concomitant inability to distinguish critics from enemies. These are the qualities that made him so unpopular in New York's black community (and elsewhere), and prompted Ed Koch to title his book about Giuliani "Nasty Man."

I doubt Giuliani had Orson Swindle in mind when he trivialized sleep deprivation as a pillowless night on a bumpy campaign flight. But he should have had a somber appreciation for the realities of torture and not, as he did, make it sound like a scene out of a movie. Swindle laughed when he heard Giuliani's comment. "He obviously doesn't understand what he's talking about," Swindle said.

It's a habit.

cohenr@washpost.com


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