Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Torture: Why it matters

Yesterday in Peshawar, Pakistan, six gunmen, affiliates of the militant group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, stormed the Army Public School, a mixed-gender school mostly for the children of military officers, and killed at least 132 schoolchildren and nine staff members.  Some reports indicate that at least some of the staff members were burned alive.

This is a heinous act that has been met with nearly universal condemnation.

In response to this news, a man I respect a great deal--a prominent lawyer who has fought for the civil rights of disfavored minorities, a defender of progressive causes--offered a comment that juxtaposed this event with last week's report on American torture--er, "enhanced interrogation techniques"--during the Bush administration.

He asked--and I'll paraphrase him a bit here, just to keep it G-rated--why exactly he was supposed to care if some of these guys get tortured.

It's an interesting question.

It's an entirely human emotional reaction to regard with indifference, if not delight, when bad things happen to bad people.  When Jeffrey Dahmer, who raped, killed, dismembered, and in some cases ate 17 people, was beaten to death in prison, I don't recall there being much of an outcry for prison security reform.  So it's not surprising that people wouldn't much care that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was repeatedly waterboarded, considering that he was the organizational mastermind behind the 9/11/01 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

If you take it a step further, there are lots of folks who believe that the CIA's torture program helped to keep the country safer by producing actionable intelligence against planned attacks.  I think that ship has sailed.  As the Senate report indicates, the imposition of torture techniques probably impeded the gathering of actionable intelligence by producing false information in some cases and by steeling the prisoners against cooperation in others.  John McCain, who would know about these things (having been a torture victim himself), says that torture doesn't work.  Unfortunately, there are lots of people whose opinions are shaped by a 24 fantasy of a ticking clock and an impending disaster being thwarted by torture.  That's not real.

If you start from a place where there are at least some people caught up in these techniques who deserved to suffer, and maybe die, it's easy to end up not caring about what happens to them.

I don't particularly care about the ones who have harmed us.

Just as I don't particularly care, per se, about the lives of the people whom we execute for crimes.

I find myself not caring about them at all. And I don't care what happens to the gunmen who killed schoolchildren in Peshawar.

And yet, it's not about what happens to them.

It is about what happens to us.  It is about what torture turns us into.  And that is something about which we ought to care a great deal.

I don't believe that this is a Christian nation.  (It's not.  It's a nation where persons of all religious beliefs, or of no belief, are welcome to worship or not worship as they choose, but where a clear majority adhere to some flavor of Christianity.)  But if we need guidance on how truly to be a Christian nation, we could easily start with the words of Jesus Christ:

27 But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:27-36 (NIV).  You can go read the rest of that chapter, or the rest of Luke, to check if you like, but I assure you, nowhere did Jesus say, "Except where it's necessary to keep your fellow citizens safe."

(As you might imagine, though I generally agree with those words, an appeal to authority isn't enough for me.)

Why should we care?  Ultimately, it comes down to credibility.

I love this country.  This is a great nation for many reasons:  our freedom, our individuality, our diversity, our dedication to justice, our egalitarianism.  We have not always lived up to the standards we set for ourselves.  Sometimes our failures have been spectacular.  But we keep trying.  And in setting those standards, we provide light to humanity, showing that it is possible to be good and just, and to prosper in spite of, if not because of, our dedication to the principles that differentiate us from most other nations.

Torture is inconsistent with those principles. 

When we act unapologetically in ways that are inconsistent with our core values regarding human rights, we lose our credibility to speak about human rights.  If we allow exceptions to the principle that no one is above the law, we lose our credibility to urge other nations to establish justice for all of their citizens.

Even when we fail to live up to our high standards, we maintain credibility by taking corrective action.

Here are three basic truths.

First, what we did was torture, no matter what euphemisms we invented to justify our actions.  The specific acts we undertook constitute torture by any reasonable definition.  This is not a situation for technicalities or narrow legal constructions; our principles are at stake.

Second, torture is a wrongful act, regardless of the motives.  It is, of course, a violation of our obligations under the Geneva Conventions and under the UN Convention Against Torture.  But it's not just that it's a violation of international law.  Those treaties exist because of a greater truth, that civilization demands that we restrain ourselves from the worst human instincts.  Therefore, what we did was wrongful, and because it was wrongful, all of those responsible for it should be held accountable, regardless of position.  We have a reasonable mechanism for investigating these crimes and for bringing those responsible for them to justice. Our credibility to ourselves and to the world demands that this be done.  Moreover, our approach to this must be fearless in the face of complaints that doing so jeopardizes our national security or diminishes our prestige. To the contrary, our national security is jeopardized by not demanding justice; our prestige is tarnished by our failure to act.

Third, torture is a useless act.  Even if you believe that torture is "on the table" as an instrument of national defense, and somehow not a violation of our core principles and our treaty obligations, torture is nonetheless useless, because it does not produce actionable intelligence that cannot be obtained via other means.  This is something I've known for a long time, for the simple reason that if torture had produced actionable intelligence, those officials who have advocated for it--Dick Cheney, I'm looking at you in particular--would have fallen over themselves in a race to give all the details about how it worked where other techniques failed.*  We would know who talked, what they said, and how we acted based on that intelligence to stop an attack.  That never happened.

* I would wager money I couldn't afford to lose that if you caught these people in an honest moment--which is admittedly difficult--they would concede that they did it mostly because they wanted to do it, not because it was helpful to any particular objective other than self-gratification.

The good news is that it's not too late.  We can show that we are better than this.  These people can be brought to justice.  They can be charged and tried, and if convicted, they can be put in jail.  It is hard to think of anything that would be a more worthwhile use of our tax dollars, than to show that this is still the America we were promised.  But making it happen will take good people with the backbone for justice.  And on that point, though I'm hopeful, I'm not holding my breath.

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