The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture

On September 11, 2001, I was nine years old. Halfway through the morning, the day school for nerdy kids that I was attending at the time told us that parents’ evening–scheduled for that night–was cancelled, and gave us all letters to take home. Thrown by a change in routine, we demanded to know why. No one would tell us much of anything, but a fifth grader at recess let slip something about a terrorist attack in New York. I had a very limited grasp of terrorism as a concept; I had watched a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie where they trained as spies and had to go through a training simulation involving “terrorists” wielding guns that produced nothing more threatening than bubbles. I couldn’t understand why a clearly harmless bubble-gun incident in a place a million miles away (we lived in Virginia) was such a big deal. My mother, to her immense credit, explained everything to me as straightforwardly as possible when she picked me up that afternoon. She gave me names (al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, World Trade Centre) that became part of the fabric of my childhood. She didn’t lie. When we got home, she let me watch the television coverage that was playing on loop on all the major networks, or at least she did until they started showing the jumpers, and the audio of the helicopter pilots, swearing and weeping as they tried and failed to save someone, anyone, from the top floors. It was a defining day in my childhood–hell, in my life–but I didn’t realize the extent of that until a few Christmases ago, when I was back home for the holidays and sorting through a bunch of old notebooks. I found one that I’d had as a nine-year-old: in the middle of it, I’d covered pages and pages with drawings of stick people leaping from burning buildings.

I mention this to emphasize that trauma–even trauma you don’t know about–causes people to do and justify things they would never ordinarily consider. Dianne Feinstein, who was the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, notes this in her foreword to the Committee’s report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program:

I have attempted throughout to remember the impact on the nation and to the CIA workforce from the attacks of September 11, 2001. I can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield…Nevertheless, such pressure, fear, and expectation of further terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken by individuals or organizations in the name of national security…Instead, CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of US law, treaty obligations, and our values.

This may be all you need to know. The story of foreign-hosted “blacksites”, renditions, the water board, and so on, is familiar to us now. I would recommend, however, that if you’re a US citizen, or the citizen of a country that participates in friendly diplomatic relations with the US (because there are implications attached to the countries you choose to be friendly with), you make an effort to read the whole thing. Some of it may surprise you.

For instance: there were eight “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by the Department of Justice in 2002, including various versions of slapping, the water board, and “walling”, whereby an interrogator wraps a towel around a detainee’s neck (to prevent whiplash, apparently) and slams him into a concrete wall. Sleep deprivation, particularly standing sleep deprivation, where you shackle a detainee’s hands above his head for hours so that his discomfort prevents him from sleeping, was also approved. So far, perhaps, so legal: unsavoury, perhaps, but not actually negligent. Except for this: CIA cables and records suggest that the officials conducting these interrogations had often been neither trained nor certified as CIA interrogators. What that means, practically speaking, is that detainees were being physically harmed by people who had never been taught how to create the balance between discomfort and pain. Discomfort may be inflicted; “lasting physical or psychological damage” may not. In theory, techniques like walling and sleep deprivation only cause discomfort. (I would argue this, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume it to be the case.) In practice, detainees did suffer physical damage (like Abu Zubaydah, whose gunshot wound sustained during capture was allowed to become dirty and infected as a result of prioritising his interrogation over his medical care.) Two detainees who had each sustained a broken foot were shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, forcing them to put weight on their injured feet. “Rectal rehydration” was used on several detainees, such as Ramzi bin al’Shibh, who went on hunger strike. The rehydration was applied in such a way as to cause injuries that, one medical official reported, are congruent with those caused by sexual assault; indeed, since forcible anal penetration constitutes rape, you could easily argue that the CIA engaged in retributive rape of detainees on hunger strike. In addition, the officer in charge at Detention Site COBALT (a code name; this was a “black site” prison hosted by an unnamed foreign government) was a junior CIA official who had previously been assessed as immature, violent, and unstable. Under this officer’s command, one COBALT detainee, Gul Rahman, died, probably of hypothermia after having been shackled to a freezing concrete floor wearing only a shirt. No reprimands were issued; the officer in question received a $2,500 bonus for “consistent good work”.

All of this is horrible enough, but public and media opinion, as well as government policy, during the mid-2000s was mostly positive about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques. This was due primarily to what the Report calls “inaccurate representations” from the CIA during briefings to other government offices. In common parlance, this is known as “lying”. The two most frequent justifications for the use of enhanced interrogation were: 1) it produced information that could not have been acquired in any other way, and 2) the information thus acquired “disrupted terrorist plots” and “saved hundreds or thousands of innocent lives”. These assertions are demonstrably untrue. Cited instances include the Karachi Plot, which was uncovered by Pakistani law enforcement before the CIA took custody of any of the detainees involved, and the Jose Padilla/”dirty bombs” plot, which the CIA was investigating before its detention and interrogation program even started. Additionally, the idea that information gathered through enhanced interrogation saved lives is, in many cases, inaccurate: the “Second Wave” plot, for instance, was judged by CIA analysts to be “amateurish”, “defective”, and probably infeasible at the time it was uncovered. (It was not, by the way, uncovered thanks to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.)

The great virtue of the formal Senate Intelligence Committee Report is that it backs up its findings with thousands of footnotes and the dedicated bibliographical rigour of an academic paper, whilst also maintaining an engaging and totally non-emotive narrative flow. No reasonable person can accuse this document of being propaganda or of being politically biased; the Committee is bipartisan, composed of both Republicans and Democrats, and the research involved sorting through over six million pages of documents in a CIA-approved facility. It was not undertaken lightly, nor is it attempting to prove a point. Its scrupulously legalistic language affirms this, but it remains readable (something I was worried about; I don’t absorb large amounts of statistics very well.) It is a piece of work of which the US Government can (for once) be proud, and reading it constitutes a civic duty–we’re lucky that Melville House publishers have volunteered to bring it to the trade paperback market. Don’t miss it.

N.b.: Due to the potentially controversial nature of this post, I’ll be monitoring the comment thread and reserve the right to remove comments (or freeze the thread). This is not because I want to censor anyone’s right to free speech; it’s because the law does not oblige me to put up with other people’s bile.


Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Tightrope, by Simon Mawer

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month.


My latest review for them is of Simon Mawer’s Cold War espionage novel Tightrope, which I was really impressed with: a simmering political atmosphere to rival Le Carre, emotional damage to rival Graham Greene (only with more sex), and no feeling of anachronism. A heartily recommended smart summer read:

Simon Mawer’s novel Tightrope (Little Brown, June 2015) belongs to a rare breed: the spy story that works by way of a slow burn, the thriller that takes its time. Its main character, Marian Sutro, is a 22-year-old Special Ops recruit and survivor of Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp specifically for and run by women; we first meet her as she is being returned to England, where neither her commanding officers nor her parents have the faintest idea what to do with her. Her experiences of arrest, torture and the camp are so utterly beyond civilian comprehension, and the middle-class British milieu so deeply invested in not talking about things and ‘getting on’, that it could hardly be otherwise.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Top Ten Fictional Characters I Have Definitely Fancied

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic is courtesy of a text conversation with Glinda: top ten fictional characters I have definitely fancied.

1. Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing. This is sort of weird because my little brother just played Benedick (to rave reviews, might I add), but come on. He’s by far the bravest, funniest, most in-touch-with-his-feelings man Shakespeare ever wrote. Also, young Kenneth Branagh. Awwww.

2. Lord Peter Wimsey, of the Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries. Urbane, witty, and owner of a landed estate. Also married to Harriet Vane, so two for one, really. (Nb: no actor has ever successfully portrayed this character. All have fallen short.)

3. Hotspur (Harry Percy), from Henry IV pt 1. Another Shakespearean! I love Hotspur’s banter with Lady Percy, his general liveliness, the fact that he obviously adores her and yet also has a certain amount of drive and initiative… Shame he dies, in the end.

4. Levin, from Anna Karenina. There’s just something about a guy who knows how to scythe, I’m sorry. (Lookin’ at you, Poldark.) Also, Levin proposes to his wife by way of the nineteenth-century Russian version of Scrabble, which is pretty much the best thing anyone’s ever done.

5. Jason Compson, from The Sound and the Fury. Sure, he’s a mean alcoholic, but I bet he’d be great in bed. Gotta have an emotionally compromised Southern boy on this list.

6. Madame Goesler, from the Palliser series by Anthony Trollope. One of the few women in this series who manages to make her own way in the world. Her first marriage (to a wealthy old European who then dies) sets her up for life, and she refuses to take advantage of the decrepit Duke of Omnium by marrying him before his death, so she’s got a moral compass. She’s also, obviously, incredibly sexy.

7. Byron Bunch, from Light In August. Byron is not incredibly sexy. He’s about as workaday as you get. But he’s a good, sweet, simple man, and he loves sweet, simple Lena, and sometimes that’s all you need to know about someone.

8. Iago, from Othello. Look, I’m sorry about this, but you know it’s true: inexplicable malevolence is hot. End of.

9. Jonathan Strange, from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. For his insouciance, and for his insane natural talent. He’d get along well with Hotspur, I feel.

10. Angel Clare, from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The original Nice Guy. Encounter him in your twenties and you won’t be impressed; encounter him for the first time as a fourteen-year-old and you will be smitten. Then, of course, you’ll be disappointed. At least he starts off well.

No Heathcliffs or Rochesters on this list! At least I appear to have a defined fictional type: clever, funny, sincere (despite the ability to wield irony), and (mostly) wealthy. Hmmm…

Am I a sexist reviewer?

Since deciding in March to make this blog a full-time book review/list site, I’ve read twenty-eight books. Of those, thirteen have been by men and fifteen by women, a pretty close split. I’ve written and posted thirteen full-length reviews since then (not counting Superlative posts or plugs for articles over at Quadrapheme or Shiny New Books). Of those reviews, only three have been of books by male authors.

The stats are interesting because they suggest that my actual reading habits are pretty evenly balanced. When I was devising my Classics Club list, I even deliberately made the gender split half-and-half, with twenty-five titles by male authors and twenty-five by female authors. The numbers seem to be saying that I pick up books by men and books by women at a roughly equal rate. This pleases me: I’m bucking the depressing trend of reading mostly male authors, while also avoiding the overcompensation of not reading anything by men at all.

The problem is that I don’t seem to be reviewing those books.

It’s not clear to me why this is. I’ve read several terrific books by men in the last month—Grits by Niall Griffiths and The Nightingales Are Drunk, by the Persian medieval poet Hafez, spring to mind—but for some reason that hasn’t translated into writing about them. Going back to look at my books-read list since March, it’s clear that some of the lacunae are explicable. David Reybrouck’s epic history of the Congo was too huge for me to be comfortable reviewing when I read it, since I’d only started blogging reviews that month; Mark Doty’s Deep Lane I reviewed in Quadrapheme, and Christopher Bollen’s Orient was reviewed there too, by my colleague Martin Cornwell, so I didn’t want to steal any thunder by reviewing it here. The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham, I really should have written about, but I found that it infuriated me too much to want to spend any more time in its company. On the Beach At Night Alone, by Walt Whitman, was a similarly exhausting reading experience, one I didn’t feel the need to return to for a review; two of the other male-authored books were also poetry collections, which I haven’t yet started to review here, mostly out of laziness. Of the remaining books by men, I will be reviewing one this month in Quadrapheme (Tightrope by Simon Mawer), have reviewed another here (The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson), and the third (the aforementioned Grits) seems to have just slipped through the cracks in what turned out to be a very deadline-heavy month.

Setting aside all those male-authored books which had reviewing conflicts, the three that jump out at me are the Whitman, the Maugham, and the Griffiths. All three were impressive in their own ways, but the Whitman and the Maugham in particular were sort of tiresome: Whitman for being so irrepressibly wide-eyed and earnest and lustful, like a poetic Labrador, and Maugham for writing a character whose supreme arrogance enwraps him so completely that there’s not much you can say about him, other than throwing your hands up in disgust and bewilderment. This is a bit of a problem for a reviewer. I want to be able to engage with a book on a much deeper, more fundamental level—what does its structure say about its author’s intent or politics or beliefs? What questions does this book require that we ask of ourselves and our lives and those of the people we know?—and being stymied in this way doesn’t help.

Compare to, say, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years—which captures an image of an era in a manner totally open-handed and empathetic; hers are all characters you can picture, personalities you can grab hold of—or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, with its insistence that we recognize transcendent beauty and mystery and terror. Compare to Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, which bares to a reader’s gaze the futile, pathetic, self-defeating cruelties of stifled women, and the incredible physical violence that underpins those cruelties, a topic which very few authors are willing to engage with. Compare to Simone Schwarz-Bart’s steely tale of persistence and resistance, The Bridge of Beyond. These are all books you can sink your teeth into. They’re books that I want to discuss.

This isn’t to say that men don’t write books like this; I wrote a long review of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, which raised a lot of major moral dilemmas and deserved to be thoroughly considered, and obviously he is not the only man to produce such work. It remains true, though, that many of the books I read that have the more interesting questions in them happen to be by women. Books like The Moon and Sixpence do raise questions (such as, “Is it moral to leave your wife and children with no explanation and never speak to them again in order to nurture your own artistic genius?”), but more and more these days, I find myself bored by these questions; I even find them, frankly, self-indulgent. (What are we meant to say to Maugham, “no”? I would quite like to say “no”. But instead we get two hundred pages.)

You may, of course, think that I ought not to worry about reviewing equal numbers of men and women writers at all. Male authors have comprised the canon for so very long, and even social media campaigns like the Year of Reading Women, or Kamila Shamsie’s proposed Year of Publishing Women, can only go a little way towards recovering a debt that has been accruing for literally millennia. But I want to read the best of what there is, I want to think hard about the best of what there is, and it seems to me that the best way to do that without succumbing to unconscious bias of one sort or another is to make a profound effort to be as balanced as possible. If 50% of the books I read are by men, but male-authored books constitute only 23% of what I review, that’s a balance I need to look at more closely.

It seems to be general practice to finish a post like this with a resolution. I won’t do that. Partly I think that resolutions provide a false finality to issues that should really be dealt with in ever-evolving ways. Partly I don’t know what conclusion I ought to be drawing from this. I don’t think I am sexist in my reading habits; the gender bias in my reviewing habits is not evidence or proof or the foundation for an argument of anything in particular, simply an observation. A field note, if you will. Something to keep an eye on.

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Tender, by Belinda McKeon

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month.

Here’s a taster for my latest review, of Belinda McKeon’s superb new novel Tender:

Belinda McKeon’s first novel, Solace, won the Geoffrey Faber prize and established her as an Irish writer to watch closely. Her follow-up, Tender (Picador, June 2015) is an emotionally literate exploration of the ties that bind—delightfully, painfully, never simply—two friends in ‘90s Dublin, and the pressures exerted upon them by their environment. It is also perhaps the most agonizingly honest portrayal I’ve ever read of what it is like to be young and deeply, obsessively, pathologically in love.

I absolutely loved it. You can read the rest of the review here.

Book jacket

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them.

Sharp Objects reads a lot like a trial run for Gone Girl. I mean this in the best possible way; Gone Girl is, I remain firmly convinced, a work of genius, and very few writers produce work like that without experimenting a little bit along the way. Reading Flynn’s debut novel, you can see how her interests have developed, how her exploration of uncomfortable (to say the least) subject matter has evolved and matured, and how she’s learned some writerly tricks. Gone Girl is like a shirt woven in one piece, top to bottom; in Sharp Objects, you can see the seams. But hell, it’s absorbing, it’s terrifying, and even with its seams showing, it’s very, very well-written. Even if Flynn had never written her third novel, this one would have secured her a reputation. It won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association, so other people agree with me on this.

Camille Preaker, our protagonist, is a hard-bitten newspaper journalist from Chicago whose editor sends her back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover a story that might be their last hope to turn their ailing paper around: two little girls have been abducted. One was found strangled with all of her teeth pulled out; the other is still missing. Camille, like all hard-bitten reporters and/or detectives and/or small-town refugees, has an unpleasant past, and returning to Wind Gap brings it all back: the death of her younger sister, her inability to ever win her mother’s love, the rampant alcoholism, sexual abuse and mental illness that seethes in tiny communities when they refuse to admit to imperfection. Meanwhile, the second little girl turns up dead—also strangled and with all her teeth pulled out—and Camille’s thirteen-year-old half-sister, Amma, seems to have the whole town under her (disturbingly sexualized) sway. Can Camille, with Kansas City detective Richard Willis, find a murderer at the heart of small-town life, or will her demons ruin her first?

Go on, guess.

The identity of the murderer isn’t really the point in Sharp Objects, though; I’d guessed it (and the twist, I’m proud to say) about seventy-five pages in. I don’t think Flynn is that interested in the tension of the chase, although she executes that tension well enough. The main characteristic of the book is its absolutely obsessive interest in power, and especially the varieties of power that are available to women—and girls—in a deeply misogynistic environment. Gang rape is not uncommon at Wind Gap high school parties, but no one recognizes it as such; middle school girls frequently offer less popular classmates to groups of older boys. Amma, whose alarmingly adult body is one of her defining features, speaks the header quote; at thirteen, she’s already fully assimilated the power inherent in submission. Unlike most of the other girls in Wind Gap, though, she’s not content simply to submit. Amma’s instinct to dominate and to damage is presented as an inexplicable evil; “What if you hurt,” she asks Camille,

because it feels so good? Like you have a tingling, like someone left a switch on in your body. And nothing can turn that switch off except hurting [someone else]. What does that mean?”

All of the women who hurt in Sharp Objects hurt other women. It never occurs to any of them that the cruel, contradictory, impossible demands they make of each other are assimilated simulacra of male priorities, male wants. They are so embedded in the system that stunts them that they can only target individuals who are as deeply helpless as they are; you couldn’t ask for a more perfect fictional representation of the Panopticon phemenon. It’s this, more than anything else, which really disturbed me while reading: you have to ask yourself whether the book, as well as its characters and setting, is misogynistic. Camille becomes furious at Richard Willis when he calls the gang rapes by name: “And sometimes,” she tells him,

drunk women aren’t raped; they just make stupid choices—and to say we deserve special treatment when we’re drunk because we’re women, to say we need to be looked after, I find offensive.”

Later, in an internal monologue, she muses,

I was never really on my side in any argument. I liked the Old Testament spitefulness of the phrase got what she deserved. Some women do.

The first comment goes against everything I have spent my adolescence and early adulthood learning: that you cannot consent while you are drunk, that you cannot consent if underage. Camille’s understanding of feminism, too, is fundamentally flawed: not having sex with drunken middle-schoolers is not giving them “special treatment”. It’s behaving with the understanding that they’re human children, instead of insensate vaginas.

Fortunately, I came to the conclusion that Flynn as an author, and Sharp Objects as a text, do not share Camille’s or Wind Gap’s convictions about female behaviour and what women can “expect”—or at least, they don’t want to. The ending of the book has Camille asking herself how much of her behaviour is due to a true sense of compassion, and how much of it is a legacy from her deeply disturbed mother, Adora. (I won’t elaborate for fear of spoilers, but if you read it, you’ll see what I mean.) “Lately”, she concludes, “I’ve been leaning towards kindness.” The reader wants, truly wants, to lean that way, too. It’s both Flynn’s strength and her weakness to have given us a portrait of darkness so convincing that that final sentence rings a little hollow.

May Superlatives

I only managed seven books in May, but given that I started a new job this month and have been sorting out commuting logistics, I don’t think that’s so bad. More importantly, they’ve all been excellent in their own ways. Links to reviews where applicable. (I didn’t manage many of those, either. Whoops.)

oddest effect: The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall. I loved Hall’s latest novel, The Wolf Border, and wanted to see what some of her earlier stuff was like. This was her second book, released in 2004, about a boy who apprentices to a tattoo artist in Morecambe Bay, and who becomes a tattoo artist in his own right on Coney Island, in New York. It simultaneously draws you towards the protagonist and brings a veil of opacity over him; I never felt quite sure that I knew who he or any of the characters actually were. A beautiful book, but a disorienting one.

most physically nauseating: The Beginning of the End, by Ian Parkinson. This book is full of descriptions of horrifying sex, rotting food, physical illness and decay, and it’s amazingly good. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you aren’t thoroughly revolted by it, it will reward you.

most drop-dead gorgeous: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. Dillard writes sentences like she’s stroking a wildcat with the back of her hand. I can’t describe her prose better than that. The rhythm of it is part Shakespeare, part incantation, part sex. It will undo you.

most thoroughly engrossing world: Grits, by Niall Griffiths. Never before, and never again, I imagine, will I find Welsh skagheads so endearing, so funny, so terribly sad, and such good company. Grits is totally gripping and is very unfairly compared to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting; personally, I think Griffiths is better.

most gut-wrenching: A return of this category, the honour of which goes to Tender, by Belinda McKeon. It’s her second novel, and chronicles the friendship between Catherine and James, two eighteen-year-olds in ‘90s Dublin. James is gay, and suffers the agony of having to hide his sexuality; Catherine, equally agonizingly, falls in love with him, and makes terrible decisions. Very powerful, very honest, and reviewed by me in Quadrapheme on 4 June!

most unabashedly comforting: Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s irreverent musings have been standard comfort-reading fare since pre-adolescence, and this one, an account of a journey around continental Europe, is particularly wonderful. I read it in one sitting over a bank holiday weekend chez les Revered Ancestors.

most pleasantly surprising: Tightrope, by Simon Mawer. A Quadrapheme read, detailing the WWII and Cold War espionage adventures of Marian Sutro, a survivor of the Nazi women’s concentration camp, Ravensbruck. Mawer was Booker Prize-shortlisted for a previous novel, but I had no idea this book was going to be so good. His  female protagonist is an actual individual—very damaged but very real—which is rare, especially in historical novels. Totally gripping; my hopes that it was going to be like a cross between Graham Greene and John Le Carre were realized.

next up: I’m almost finished with Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame)’s debut novel, Sharp Objects, which is amazingly disturbing. And if the Bailey’s Prize winner isn’t one I’ve already read, I’ll have to take care of that too…