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From Enlightenment to Empire? America's Descent Into Brutality Post-9/11
The Truth About Torture -- Really?
In the past, I often admired Charles Krauthammer's brilliant and insightful commentaries. Nonetheless, when various pundits and politicians were discussing the issue of "coercive" methods of interrogation in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, I was shocked when I came across Krauthammer's Weekly Standard article from several years ago, "The Truth About Torture." If truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, then Krauthammer's lens needs to be replaced.
Using the quasi-mythical "ticking time bomb" scenario, he asserted that, “If you have the slightest belief that [torturing an alleged terrorist] will get you the information to save a million people … there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible…. It is a moral duty."
Using Urban Myths to Justify Barbarism
A moral duty? By what standard? While the Ticking Time Bomb — defined as the imminent threat of a "weapons of mass destruction" event threatening to cause countless civilian casualties — has been frequently and sensationally used as a plot device in the former hit TV show "24" and other Hollywood productions, it's only that -- a Hollywood story line. It's never happened. Therefore, to use it to justify torture is as weak as it is morally bankrupt.
Krauthammer believes in human rights ― but with certain unsettling conditions. He argues that human rights derive from one's "status" or behavior. So, if you fit a predefined category (civilian or "enemy combatant," e.g., an identifiable soldier of an established state), you have rights. If not, you don't.
As he puts it, "Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what … terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing." (Emphasis added.)
A reckless and aggressive young New York State legislator, Greg Ball, recently took Krauthammer's stance to the next level of brutality in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing. On April 22, 2013, he opined on Twitter that the authorities should torture the surviving suspect, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, if there was any chance of getting some helpful intel.
That night, CNN's Piers Morgan interviewed Ball on "Piers Morgan Live," but was barely able to get a word in edgewise as Ball blasted Morgan with a nonstop stream of gung-ho bombast. Forget the Bill of Rights or the American legal presumption of "innocent until proven guilty." Ball refused to budge from the idea that torturing an American teenager, even without a Ticking Time Bomb scenario, would be perfectly acceptable.
The Bush Administration's Rogue Pro-Torture Policy
The ethical-legal problem for Krauthammer and the dangerously hotheaded Ball is that their argument rests solely on a highly controversial Bush Administration legal perspective that flies in the face of a long-established body of international and domestic law prohibiting the use of torture and "cruel, unusual, and degrading" treatment (CID) ― including the United Nations Convention on Torture (passed by Congress and, therefore, now U.S. law), the 4th and 8th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and time-honored legal principles of habeas corpus and due process.
This rogue legal perspective originated in the aftermath of the unprecedented terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when legal loopholes were sought so that the President could issue orders allowing torture or CID to be used on detainees suspected of terrorist activity or connections. Government attorneys Bybee, Gonzales and Yoo did so by inventing a third category of persons — neither civilians nor enemy combatants — who they excluded from the protections of the law.
This legal "invention" -- and the appalling brutalities, including deaths from torture, that resulted from the Bush Administration's subsequent authorization of CIA- and contractor-administered "enhanced interrogation" (a true euphemism if there ever was one), has been damningly repudiated by Ray McGovern, a retired CIA officer and recipient of the Intelligence Commendation Medal.
The Ugly Price of Torture
Krauthammer also wrote dismissively of the anti-torture position of former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War hero who endured eight years of crippling torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. (His arms were so badly broken that he cannot raise them above chest level.)
Yet it is John McCain's intimate knowledge of the devastating effects of torture that has earned him the right to be heard. As Andrew Sullivan eloquently put it in his powerful article “The Abolition of Torture”:
Torture is the polar opposite of freedom…. When you break a human being, you turn him into something subhuman…. What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism.
So What Do We Do With Those Accused of Terrorist Acts?
There is no need to create a different legal category for terrorists in order to bring them to justice. Such cases can be prosecuted under either national or international criminal law.
As for the idea that terrorist crimes are somehow so terrible that they warrant different treatment, let's remember that there are many non-terrorist criminals whose acts of wanton murder, torture, rape, and the sexual exploitation of children for pornographic purposes traumatize individuals, families and communities ― but we don’t put them in a different legal category.
After all, have you ever heard of a serial killer or sadistic child predator being tortured by the authorities for information (in the United States, at least)? You haven't — because in our legal system, human rights derive solely from being human, no matter how inhuman one's alleged crime. Moreover, in the U.S., one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Former military interrogator Matthew Alexander: "I don't torture because it doesn't work, is immoral and illegal, and violates my oath of office."
The ripple effects outward, over time, from torturer and tortured alike — on their families, associates and societies — are real. Nations such as the former Soviet Union (with its dark history of the Stalin era, the Gulag and the KGB), France (its treatment of Algerian resisters) and the United Kingdom (its treatment of Irish terrorists) are finding that collective guilt and trauma are not easily cast off.
All the arguments about so-called "ticking time bombs" and the necessity of torture to get The Intel We Need to Prevent the End of the World are mere excuses to vent our most dangerous emotions: fear, anger, pride, and the desire for vengeance. According to experienced interrogators, the best intel comes out of interrogations that are non-coercive. Yes, they take more time, but the results are reliable ― unlike those obtained through torture or CID.
As Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and one of the most successful U.S. interrogators of al-Qaeda operatives put it in a TIME Magazine article, there is no need for harsh interrogation methods. Soufan said that "... techniques like waterboarding don't work. 'When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them .... That means the information you're getting is useless."
Will Our Choices Be Driven by Fear or Ethics?
In the end, the point is not what works and what doesn't but, rather, what is ethical and in line with internationally recognized — and legally codified — principles of human rights. The ends never justify the means when those means are dehumanizing to victims and perpetrators alike.
As Sullivan said, "We stand on the brink of an enormously important choice — one that is critical, morally as well as strategically, to get right."
It's time to take responsibility, as a nation, for what was done post-9/11, and insist that Congress act to return us to the rule of law, not the legacy of a panicked and autocratic Administration determined to have its way in spite of constitutionally mandated checks and balances.
Indeed, one of the continuing challenges for the U.S. in the 21st century will be to resist the descent into brutality that often follows global power and military might and, instead, to model a high ethic of the dignity and rights of every human being.
“Army Manual 2-22.3” (pdf download) in “FM 34-52 Intelligence Interrogation,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FM_34-52_Intelligence_Interrogation.
Alan Dershowitz, “Tortured Reasoning,” in Sanford Levinson (ed.) Torture: A Collection. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Tom Farer, Confronting Global Terrorism and American Neoconservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
"Fear Itself," The New York Times Online, May 6, 2010.
Alex Markels, “Will Terrorism Rewrite the Laws of War?” NPR, December 6, 2005, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5011464, accessed 5/16/10.
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
Richard Posner, “Torture, Terrorism, and Interrogation,” in Levinson (ed.) Torture: A Collection. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Andrew Sullivan, “The Abolition of Torture: Saving the United States from a totalitarian future,” The New Republic (December 19, 2005).
The Torture Papers, ed. Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel. Cambridge University Press, 2005.