Selling Our Nation’s Soul at a Bargain

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April 22, 2009 by Daniel Stack

We’ll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies — if we are going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And, uh, so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal basically, to achieve our objectives.

– Dick Cheney, September 16, 2001, Meet the Press

Now that the Obama administration has released the so-called “torture memos”, detailing the decision and attemption justification of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, the discussion of torture is all over the airwaves. This  especially concerns the use of the technique of “waterboarding” (simulated drowning, though it’s a darn good simulation since the subject cannot breathe) and whether or not these techniques are effective. Of less importance, to those defending these acts, are whether or not these constitute torture.

Let me start my consideration of these events with discussing whether these techniques constitute what a reasonable person would consider torture. The United States has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture which states:

For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction

Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture … In particular, the obligations …  shall apply with the substitution for references to torture or references to other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Regardless of whether techniques such as sleep deprivation, waterboarding, nudity, “simulated slamming” against a wall, slapping, shackling, forced positions, etc. meet the definition of torture in the first paragraph I quote, the final paragraph would most certainly apply. The memos seem to agree with that violation but try to get around it by defining places such as Guantanamo Bay as outside US jurisdiction. That is alarming for two reasons. First, that we’d attempt to use such distinctions to permit torture. And second that we would try to define Guantanamo Bay as being outside US jurisdiction. If a civilian contractor were to commit a crime there, what jurisdiction would apply? If Cuba were to try to take it back by force, would we not consider it an act of war?

I think we can safely agree that we chose to violate  the UN Convention Against Torture with an attempted fig leaf of justification.

Imagine that one of these people has a member of your family and they’re threatening to behead them, but you don’t know where they are. We have a prisoner who knows where they are. You wanna bet on how much you would be willing to support these very techniques which are said to have worked? It’s even in The New York Times today: The interrogation techniques that Obama has now banned worked.

– Rush Limbaugh, April 22, 2009

Limbaugh’s argument, or variations of it, are quite common. That setting aside the legal and moral aspects of torture, we should practice it because it works. Let us first assume that torture works. That by inflicting pain on someone we can obtain truthful information they are attempting to conceal, information that could save American lives. Shouldn’t we do that?

I would submit that the answer should be no. Would I still say that if my family were threatened? Probably not, but the law exists to protect society from individual influences. If a criminal were to hurt one of my children, my instinct would almost certainly be unthinking retribution. I honestly believe that to pursue this course of action would come at a horrific cost. It might save the lives of individuals, but at the cost of the American soul. What kind of a nation would we be if we were to exercise the belief that there are occasions when it is appropriate to deliberately make a person suffer, even a “bad” person? How long would it be until we allowed the use of torture under “special circumstances” against American citizens?

During the American Revolution, the treatment of prisoners was at the discretion of the victor. Americans suffered terribly in British prison hulks. Yet Americans, in a struggle against the world’s  most powerful empire (as opposed to terrorists who can hurt but not destroy us), refused to give up her ideals. Loss in that conflict would have meant the end of the young nation. Consider the words of George Washington and John Adams who went on to become our first two presidents.

Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren…. Provide everything necessary for them on the road

– George Washington on the treatment of Hessian prisoners after the Battle of Trenton

I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this — Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won’t prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed.

– John Adams in letter to Abigail Adams, 1777

These were not tweed-wearing professors contemplating existential truths. These were men who were in a struggle which, if it were to meet with failure, would result in the end of their own nation and their own lives would be forfeit. Yet they held to the ideals that men such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush would have had us discard. I applaud the fact that we are trying to redeem our nation’s tarnished soul.

And to be honest, our honor and soul have been sold at a pitiful price. Torture is indeed excellent way of getting people to talk. They will say whatever they think will end the torture. Professional interrogators have indicated it is a terrible way of extracting reliable information.

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April 2009
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