Friday, February 08, 2008

Surrendering the moral high ground on torture

There is a price to pay for torture. When the Bush administration took this country down the slippery slope of cutting corners on the treatment of prisoners-of-war deemed enemy combatants and by engaging in torture or the threat of torture they did more than carry us out over moral thin ice. The net effect has been to weaken the United States by destroying American credibility both at home and abroad. It has become a common assumption U.S. authorities torture, whether they do or not, to the point that our closest allies distance themselves from us. The virtues of credibility and moral leadership are not abstract; they are as empowering as the number of tanks on the battlefield or aircraft carriers on the sea. The fact these virtues are in doubt makes us a weaker nation than we have been since the beginning of World War II. Others will not follow because we think we are the good guys, others will follow because they think we are the good guys.

Unfortunately, the United States will have to wait before regaining the moral high ground. Following CIA Director Michael Hayden’s admission that detainees have been tortured by water-boarding, Attorney General Michael Mukasey rejected any investigation into the practice barred by U.S. law and treaties stating because such practices by anyone who acted pursuant to a Justice Department legal opinion was "insulated from criminal liability." The White House via Vice President Cheney says water-boarding is a “good thing.” (Compare this to Teddy Roosevelt’s reaction to reports of torture, including the “water cure”, during the Philippine-American War.)

Barton Hinkle has these thoughts on the subject in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Earlier this week the White House called American veterans liars.

The Bush administration didn't say it quite so baldly as that. But after CIA director Michael Hayden acknowledged the use of waterboarding, a White House spokesman said the ad ministration had determined it was a lawful "enhanced interrogation technique" rather than illegal torture.

That's a remarkable shift. During the WWII era the U.S. prosecuted Japanese military leaders for committing torture -- by waterboarding -- in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. As Charles Nielsen, an Army Air Force lieutenant who was captured by the Japanese, testified then: "I was given several types of torture . . . .I was given what they call the water cure." He described the effect: "I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death." Was Nielsen lying?

Retired Army Gen. Stephen Xenakis says that "our nation has regarded wa terboarding as torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment since the late 19th century." Is he a liar?

The U.S. Army field manual prohibits warterboarding. U.S. servicemen were convicted for waterboarding enemy soldiers in both 1901 and 1968. And in congressional testimony last year, Malcolm Wrightson Nance, a counterterrorism specialist and instructor at the Navy's SERE -- Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape -- school, described his own experience with waterboarding: "It is an overwhelming experience that induces horror and triggers frantic survival instincts." Is Nance a liar?

U.S. policy, then, seems to be that waterboarding of Americans is torture, and waterboarding by Americans before 9/11 was torture, but waterboarding by Americans after 9/11 is not. This is known as moral relativism, which conservatives used to abhor.

As David Gushee observed in "Five Reasons Torture Is Always Wrong," a 2006 essay in Christianity Today, people generally "do not want to call torture what it is." The Bush administration has been forced into Orwellian Doublespeak because it wants to pretend an activity that is clearly torturous is not torture. But saying so doesn't make it so. The administration might just as well try to defend the eating of cooked human flesh by saying, "We don't consider that to be cannibalism. It's only cannibalism if you eat it raw." Nope.

IT SEEMS worth asking, then, why nobody proposed torturing Timothy McVeigh to find out whether he knew of any other homegrown terrorist plots. Likewise, the argument for torturing terrorist suspects would apply equally to criminal suspects who might have knowledge of ongoing criminal enterprises. Imagine how much easier it would be -- according to the logic of the pro-torture contingent -- if law-enforcement agencies could subject mafia dons, drug kingpins, or even street-corner dealers to waterboarding, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, and similar

It does no good to respond that torturing American citizens is unlawful or unconstitutional, because the Bush administration's supporters have argued that the war on terror requires changing -- or simply ignoring -- both the law and the Constitution when the president deems it necessary. The entire pro-torture argument rests on the thesis that if the ends justify the means, rules are irrelevant and anything goes.

There are, of course, some individuals who think it is perfectly fitting to torture anybody, citizen or non-, enemy soldier or mere criminal suspect, if there is any chance whatsoever that torture will produce the desired results.

Many of them -- though not all -- have sworn allegiance to al-Qaida.
You can read his entire column here.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

Live by the sword, die by the sword, I say.