Torture and American Democracy
April 17, 2009
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states (Article 5): “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” December 10, 2008, marked the sixtieth anniversary of that Declaration, to which the United States is a signatory.
Alas, it is now abundantly clear that the Bush administration did engage in torture in violation of this prohibition. The International Committee of the Red Cross had secretly investigated U. S. interrogation practices against prisoners and concluded some time ago that torture was used against suspected terrorists. The Justice Department has now confirmed the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
These practices took place in secret prisons maintained by the United States in Pakistan, Dubai, Thailand, and elsewhere. They included waterboarding and other illegal methods—practices for which the United States prosecuted Japanese military interrogators for war crimes after World War II. Waterboarding involves the pouring of water on a cloth held over the prisoner’s face so that he cannot breathe, simulating drowning. Other practices involve forcing prisoners to stand in painful positions for days with their hands chained to a bar above them, keeping suspects awake for as long as eleven days; locking them in dark, cramped boxes, and/or injecting insects into the box to frighten them; forced nudity; slamming them against the wall; and dousing prisoners with very cold water (41° F).
These methods of torture were used by totalitarian dictatorships before and during World War II, and were widely condemned by the civilized world. We now find that they were used by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team with impunity, in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. These acts were illegal and those who used or condoned them should be held accountable.
We often hear the argument: “What if” the terrorists were going to detonate a nuclear bomb over Los Angeles or Washington? Should we not use torture on suspects to extract information? Well, perhaps, in a clear-and-present-danger crisis situation – though even here, the seeming power of torture to extract information must be balanced against the possibility that using torture will only elicit false information. Still, the so-called “ticking bomb” argument surely cannot be used as a pretext to engage in any and all forms of reprehensible conduct. American democracy is based on laws and it is committed to the defense of human rights. The use of a doomsday scenario to justify any and all forms of bestial conduct is surely inadmissible. The main casualty of this whole sordid affair is American democracy itself, which is based on the ideals of liberty and respect for the principles of due process and justice. Our democracy has suffered great damage because of our tragic excursion into torture. The world will be watching to see how or if we make amends.
#1 Skepdude (Guest) on Friday April 17, 2009 at 12:16pm
I agree. I also agree that we can imagine certain “what if” scenarios, in which, theoretically, the use of torture would be justified and even required, but I would imagine the practical difficulties to be next to insurmountable. Along with the death penalty, torture has no place in a civilized country, even though I do reserve the right to its use in the very remote chance an actual “what if” scenario did present itself. I do not wish to reserve such right with respect to the death penalty though, let’s be clear.
#2 Ophelia Benson on Friday April 17, 2009 at 12:42pm
Well perhaps the Bush administration shares the view of Harvard’s ‘Islamic chaplain,’ who told a student via email that ‘there was “great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment [for apostates]) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand.”’ Perhaps the Bush administration too sees the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5 included, as a modern hegemonic (and thus wicked) discourse.
Or perhaps it merely wantonly sacrificed the moral right to disagree with the chaplain and his like.
See here for the chaplain:
#3 gray1 on Friday April 17, 2009 at 8:23pm
Torture should be justly condemned by any civilized society, however, I have no doubt that it shall continue “evermore” through the use of goons working behind the scenes whether they be any number of high level government employees or simply an underpaid backwoods sheriff’s deputy. Authority apparently exists to be abused at any level.
Hold anyone accountable? Why set a precedent that might later be used against you? Teflon rules!
#4 mikethebikey on Saturday April 18, 2009 at 6:06am
Find the people approving torture and carrying out these activities all the way up to the president , if possible and prosecute with the full force of the law , full stop.
#5 gray1 on Saturday April 18, 2009 at 9:27am
#6 Amos Capps (Guest) on Saturday April 18, 2009 at 5:42pm
Just ceasing the practice is not enough. For one thing, since it’s done in secret, we have no way of knowing if the practices have actually ceased.
The U.S. has suffered a tremendous loss of credibility and of respect in the rest of the world. Just stopping, without prosecuting the war criminals does nothing to rehabilitate us.
#7 Max (Guest) on Friday April 24, 2009 at 12:04am
“We now find that they were used by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team with impunity, in direct violation of the Geneva Convention.”
#8 mikethebikey on Friday April 24, 2009 at 2:10am
That all sounds good on paper Max but how do you know the person you are torturing has actually committed a terrorist act and hasn’t been framed by someone in order to pick up a massive cash bonus offered by the American government. Not least to mention that torture has been shown over and over again to be a much more unreliable method in gathering intelligence than traditional modern methods based on psychology and other scientific methods.
Not only does torture dehumanize the victims it dehumanizes the perpetrators .
A good rule of thumb is to not do anything to anyone that you would find unacceptable being done to your own soldiers if captured by the enemy.
The concept of rules of war seems to be a contradiction in terms . War is usually over religion , culture , resources, ideology or real estate and is more often than not kill or be killed . It is sad that in 2009 we still go to war as often as we do .
#9 gray1 on Friday April 24, 2009 at 10:36am
I find the term “lawful combatants” to be something of an oxymoron. Obviously if people are shooting at each other there is a fundimental difference of opinion about which party actually represents the rightful “controlling legal authority”, to borrow a very useful phrase from Mr. Al Gore.
The Geneva Convention has forever been an attempt to make war humane, which is another oxymoron at work. Doesn’t this amount to agreeing that before we murder each other by the thousands using (only) bombs, bullets and fire, lets first make a few “play nice” rules to go by? This “Convention” is really nothing but a treaty which has historically often not been signed and/or later ignored by many of the potential warring parties. By way of qualification, when was the last time there was war in Geneva? You no play the game… you no make the rules!
This current flack about sending U.S. ex-leaders before their political enemies to be judged as “war criminals” based upon a (foreign power controled) redefining of such “treaty” language to cover civilian terrorists (who, btw didn’t sign) and which was never agreed to by the U.S. or many other nations amounts to nothing but a “political lynching” to borrow another phrase. Its sole purpose is to generate as much political hay as possible while in fact having no basis in any existing real law.
That said, those who would actually redefine laws for personal and political gain stand to be themselves soon hoisted by the many petards they set.
#10 Max (Guest) on Friday April 24, 2009 at 4:26pm
“A good rule of thumb is to not do anything to anyone that you would find unacceptable being done to your own soldiers if captured by the enemy.”
That sounds good on paper, mikethebikey, but an enemy that has no respect for human rights doesn’t deserve any protections.
“how do you know the person you are torturing has actually committed a terrorist act and hasn’t been framed by someone in order to pick up a massive cash bonus offered by the American government.”
They gloat about it and promise that more attacks are coming soon. Were there really any doubts about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the only three known to have been waterboarded?
“Not least to mention that torture has been shown over and over again to be a much more unreliable method in gathering intelligence than traditional modern methods based on psychology and other scientific methods.”
On Jihadist terrorists? Traditional methods work on normal people who care about life, family, and money, but hardcore Jihadists don’t cooperate at all. They’d rather be martyred.
#11 mikethebikey on Friday April 24, 2009 at 4:38pm
Max Your reasoning seems to be predicated on exacting revenge and lowering your moral turpitude to that of the people committing these hideous acts . If someone is found to be a terrorist they should be removed from society and not be released until they are no longer a threat.
If you reduce yourself to that level you lose the moral high ground and exacerbate the problems you have in the first place by giving terrorists all the reason they need to gather new recruits for their “jihad” against The Torturers .
During world war 2 revelations that the Japanese were torturing was the best recruiting tool the allied forces could have had. This is probably best avoided with that in mind.