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September 24, 2013

What Grand Theft Auto 5 Can Teach Us About Torture

This is a cross-post from The Huffington Post.

Before I became a human rights advocate, I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto. I probably shot thousands of virtual civilians before my 18th birthday. Late at night, with my high school buddy, in his parents' basement, I committed digital murder, stole cars, and trafficked drugs -- all in an effort to win a video game.

This week, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) 5, the latest installment in the gangster action game series, took in $800 million in a single day, more than any of its wildly popular predecessors. But to win in GTA 5, you have to torture people. Waterboarding. Electroshock. Pulling teeth. You know, all the rough stuff.

For me, this crosses a line.

So, am I just an aging hypocrite? I don't think so. Because even in the fantasy world I inhabited for countless hours when GTA first came out -- a lawless land where all sorts of outlandish and grotesque criminal behavior was fun and acceptable -- there were lines we didn't cross. Back then, gangsters, let alone government officials, didn't torture people on a systematic basis. And we didn't let our kids play torturer, either.

What does it say about our culture that waterboarding other human beings for personal advantage is now within the realm of reasonable fantasy?

None of this is to excuse the gratuitous violence depicted in video games like GTA. But Americans understand that, as lamentable as it is, we live in a society marked by crime, gangs, and even mass shootings, like the one that killed 13 people this week just a few miles from my office in Washington. That GTA includes such wanton cruelty is no longer surprising; it's a caricature of our society's criminal underground, on steroids.

But since 9/11, it's increasingly common for the beloved protagonist in popular movies and television shows (e.g., 24, the hit show on Fox) to resort to torture. That's a sad reflection of how waterboarding and other torture tactics have become accepted and acceptable in the universe of popular culture's glorified criminality. So much so that we now get to try it at home, on our video game consoles. In this kind of media climate, it's no wonder that support for torturing terrorism suspects has been increasing.

But there's another reason for the uptick in our nation's support for torture: we have yet to fully account for our official post-9/11 torture policy, which involved subjecting hundreds of detainees to so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- waterboarding, sleep and sensory deprivation, stress positions, and other forms of abuse -- at Guantanamo and in a network of secret CIA blacksites across the world.

Though President Obama signed an executive order banning torture and shutting down the CIA blacksites, he's been unwilling to "look backwards" -- to use his own words -- at the systematic torture committed by the CIA. As a result, prominent politicians and former government officials -- such as Mitt Romney, the president's rival in 2012, and Jose Rodriguez, former director of the CIA's clandestine service -- have advocated a return to "enhanced interrogation," which they claim was a safe, lawful, and effective way to gain intelligence information that stopped terrorist plots and saved American lives.

We need to change this narrative, and there's a clear path to do it.

Last year, the Senate intelligence committee adopted a 6,000 plus page study on the post-9/11 CIA torture program, based on a review of over 6 million pages of official documents. Senator Feinstein, chair of the intelligence committee, has called the study one of the most important in the history of the United States Senate; it reportedly shows that torture in the CIA program was much more widespread and cruel than we thought, and much less effective at gathering useful intelligence than proponents of "enhanced interrogation" claim.

The CIA is apparently fighting the study's findings tooth and nail in a bid to protect the Agency from embarrassment. Because the president cares about his legacy on torture, he should direct the CIA to cooperate with the committee to make the study public, as Senator John McCain, Vice President Biden, and many of our nation's most respected retired military leaders have called for.

Senator Feinstein has also committed to seeking a committee vote to release at least the executive summary of the study, which is several hundred pages long and contains the study's essential findings and conclusions.

Release of the executive summary would be a good first step, and members of the committee should support it in the name of transparency, even if they don't agree with all of the study's findings. Senator Chambliss, vice-chair of the committee, has prepared minority views, which should also made public, as should the CIA's response to the committee's study. With all the relevant information in the public domain, the American people will have to decide for themselves whether the consequences of our official policy of torture were worth it.

Dealing with our post-9/11 record on torture involves a national conversation that's long past due, but in the meantime, I hope parents talk to their kids about torture before the virtual waterboarding sessions begin.