A Word on Torture


That about sums it up, doesn’t it? While the religious conservatives running the country seem to value the US Declaration of Independence for Jefferson’s religious language within the document, they have by their actions demonstrated that anything Jefferson said about “inalienable rights” has no place in their own thinking.

Certainly there are no “inalienable rights” contemplated for “enemy combatants”. As the current media fuss over “renditions” (the practice of placing prisoners into situations where a dollop of uncertainty obtains over whether they will be subjected to aversive or painful physical and mental challenges) shows, once the “enemy combatant” label has been attached, there is likely to be a long period of privation and stress before even an innocent, like Khaled el-Masri, may hope for an end to the personal nightmare. Nor does US citizenship guarantee any further grant of rights, as the application of the magic label of “enemy combatant” has been used to detain indefinitely citizens under suspicion.

And it should be noted that the question of torture is a separate one from whether one is serious about suppressing or countering terrorism. Torture is not a necessary concomitant to fighting terrorism, no matter how glibly certain pundits talk about it. Torture is a particular process that is applied for its convenience and no other discernable benefit.

Franklin’s adage that “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security” is the great unheeded warning in the politics of the moment. The passage of the massive “Patriot Act” makes it difficult to say with certainty which liberties we may have given up, as virtually no legislator had complete command of its forest-killing mass of pages even when they voted for it. And that’s just the straight-ahead side of the story, where our representatives directly took aim at certain liberties in order, ostensibly, to increase security. The other side of the story has to do with the changes in policy, the things that could be done administratively, but which change what certain rights mean. And recent administrations have found it convenient to simply ignore the plain meaning and established usage of terms like habeus corpus and torture. With “torture”, the administration has cottoned onto the “intelligent design” practice of simply redefining a word, Humpty-Dumpty style, to mean what one wants it to mean. Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, would find that much of the interrogatory craft practiced under his command would happily fit into the “not torture” practiced now in the name of the “war on terror”. There would only be left out those practices that themselves could cause death, and those that caused organ damage. (Whether breaking or crushing bones counts as “organ damage” is a question to be considered; given the semantic flexibility shown by the current administration, it’s certainly a possibility that thumbscrews could be part of the instrumentation used today as it was in 1492.) Certainly the “heretic’s fork” could be deployed, though the modern goal is a certain volubility rather than silence of the victim.

A variety of arguments against torture (in the usual sense, not the administrative Humpty-Dumptyism) have been made. The utilitarian argument proceeds in the manner of saying that information gathered in this way is particularly suspect, and requires independent verification anyway. If the independent verification is achievable, the torture is dispensable. The complementarity argument rests on “tit-for-tat” behavior: if we deploy torture, it becomes more likely that our enemies will use torture on captured US citizens. Then there is the credibility argument: if the US uses torture, then our “moral capital” for urging other countries to improve their human rights record is diminished. But I think the strongest argument against torture is the moral argument: it’s just wrong.

Expanding on the moral status of torture, there are a few things to be considered. Kevin Drum’s take is that deploying torture puts the US in the same category as nations that have used it as a matter of policy: Stalinist USSR, Nazi Germany, and Spain during the Inquisition. We shouldn’t like to be thought of in that way, right? But that’s not the worst of it. I think of torture as a moral challenge for the 21st century that may parallel the way slavery was a moral challenge in the 19th century. We have a certain group who think that their aims cannot be accomplished without the aid and application of torture, much as plantation owners of the South were concerned about the disruption that abolition would cause their economic interests. For those who profess Christianity, the plain reading of the Gospels should be convincing that we are called to treat even our enemies well, and that certainly does not comport with torturing some of them. For those who are agnostic or atheist, torture should be seen as callous disregard for intrinsic human worth. Torture is for everyone a corrosive practice that distorts the principles of those who practice it (or condone its practice, either explicitly or by the consent of silence), and whose deployment makes it more likely to be used more often. Do we want our future to be one replete with torture, or one in which the inalienable rights of everyone are upheld?

Update: In looking at some other sites, I ran across a commentator who opined that the techniques used were pretty much restricted to psychological tactics and things like having people stand up for four hours at a time, and that it was ludicrous to call standing up for four hours “torture”. But standing in a rigid position for long periods can lead to fainting. An Air Force major once gave me tips on how to stand at attention without running the risk of passing out. Beyond that, what actually transpires apparently goes beyond whatever limited description that was at issue in that commentary. Consider this from the New York Times:

The US does not engage in torture, but rather “unique and innovative” methods of prisoner interrogation, explains CIA Director Porter Goss. But what these methods entail has since become public knowledge. Under the policy, blows to the face and the abdomen are allowed, as is the apparently routine practice of forcing prisoners to stand for 40-hour periods in ice-cold cells while periodically spraying them with cold water. In an especially repugnant practice known as waterboarding, the prisoner is made to believe that he is drowning. “We must never simply fight evil with evil,” says Republican Senator John McCain, himself a torture victim during the Vietnam War. “It will kill us.”

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

3 thoughts on “A Word on Torture

  • 2005/12/10 at 5:09 pm

    Excellent post, Dr Elsberry. Regardless of the dubious legality, or ineffectiveness of torture in gleaning useful information, (hat tip CIA,) torture’s cruel. It’s vicious and pointless. Anger at what terrorists have done and may do in the future should not be an excuse to ignore the principles our countries represent; that people do it under the guise of false patriotism is particularly disgusting. We’re the blinking good guys, we’re supposed to value human beings and avoid reacting with utter disregard for any life, let alone the lives of people we’ve yet to determine are guilty of any crime through any semblance of a justice system.

    Regarding Mr Spedding’s article: what is it with Kenneth Clarke outright admitting that government positions regarding terrorism are utterly ineffective? He did the same thing with ID cards. I’ve lost track on whether there even is a rationale behind the recent flurry of attacks on basic civil liberties beyond yelling ‘terrorists!’


  • 2005/12/11 at 6:51 am

    I agree that torture is morally objectionable as well as being an unreliable means of forcing an unwilling suspect to divulge information but is it always that simple?

    Suppose the police or security services detain a suspected terrorist who, under normal questioning, claims to have planted a bomb where it will kill many people but refuses to reveal the location. If the police do nothing, there is a good chance many people will die who might otherwise be saved. What should they do?

    It is similar to the dilemma illustrated in the film “Dirty Harry” where the psychopathic killer kidnaps a young girl and leaves her buried with a dwindling supply of air. In the film, rhe character played by Eastwood tortures the suspect into revealing the girl’s location, although she is dead by the time they find her and no charges can be pressed against the suspect because his rights were violated. Was he right or wrong to do what he did in those circumstances?

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