Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

the case against torture

Ted Koppel has a practical and succinct definition of torture:

If we would define a given technique as torture when it is inflicted on a citizen of ours, then that is also torture when our interrogators employ the methods.

Koppel is calling for the U.S. to outlaw torture, and to impose stiff penalties for violating that law. He further calls for us to act now, during a time of relative calm, so we don't descend into the murky legal ambiguities of post-9/11 interrogations:

A series of revelations about U.S. prisoners being subjected to sleep deprivation, extreme heat and cold, loud music, stress positions, wall-slamming, enclosure in small, dark boxes (with or without the company of insects) and, of course, waterboarding, were euphemistically sanitized under the catchall category of "enhanced interrogation techniques." (How many angels can writhe on the head of a pin?)

The issues, as Daniel Schorr points out, are twofold:

whether inflicting pain on terrorism suspects is effective in loosening their lips, and whether the practice can be morally and legally justified.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for one, claims that U.S. interrogators "saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives," due to information gleaned from tortured captives. He has asked the CIA to release documents that he says will back his claims.

Koppel counters that tortured prisoners don't always give good information:

Of course torture works, in some measure. There have, no doubt, been brave and incredibly strong-willed men and women who have resisted the most horrific tortures and given up nothing. The greater likelihood, however, is that a torture subject will give up not just all, but frequently more than he knows; anything, just to put an end to the pain.

By definition, this information must be something for which we have no independent verification; otherwise, the Dick Cheneys of the world could not argue that it was the torture that got us the information.

So the captive can say anything, and we have to trust them while we act on what they said. Schorr points to an instance where this led us down the wrong trail:

Only this week, word came of the death in a Libyan prison of Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi — apparently a suicide, according to a Libyan newspaper. The Washington Post called him a one-time "high-value source for the CIA." Under pressure in an Egyptian jail, he told of training al-Qaida militants in Iraq for chemical and biological warfare.

The information prodded out of him served to undergird the speech of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The coerced confessions of al-Libi, combined with the fabricated testimony of Ahmad Chalabi, were the grounds for returning to war in Iraq. That conflict has resulted in approximately 100,000 documented deaths in 6+ years. And this is only one example. So even if Cheney is being truthful that torture has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, it has come at an enormous cost.

The moral case against torture is more clear. Koppel's definition itself contains the seeds of the answer. Two millennia ago, Rabbi Hillel expressed it like this: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law." Against this golden rule, all of the slick justifications for "enhanced interrogation techniques" fall flat. Even if torture showed itself to be effective for gathering information, it's not worthwhile if it turns us into the type of people that we don't want to be.

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At 5/17/2009 5:09 AM, Blogger truevyne said...

Great Post. Let God's justice roll down.

At 6/06/2009 6:52 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

There are plenty of other issues here, but I think it's worth pointing out that we do waterboard our own citizens in SERE training. It's certainly true that if we consider something torture if used against our own citizens, we shouldn't consider it not torture if used on our enemies. But is that going on? Do we call it torture when we waterboard our special forces and other military personnel when preparing them for what might happen if they get captured? As far as I know, we don't. That doesn't mean it's not torture, but I'm not sure our government is guilty of the flat-out inconsistency that you're suggesting.

At 6/07/2009 10:44 AM, Blogger BruceA said...

Jeremy -

I don't think that's what Koppel is saying. There is a difference between voluntarily subjecting oneself to something for survival training, and involuntarily being subjected to it by a hostile nation. If Iran accused an American journalist of being a spy, would it be OK for the Iranians to subject the journalist to simulated drowning? I don't think so.

And if it's not OK for Iranians, it's not OK for us. Otherwise we have no moral integrity. And losing that is far worse than anything we could possibly gain from torturing our prisoners.


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