Thinking about torture

Where this buck stops

The trouble with this desire for retribution isn’t that it goes too far. The trouble is that it doesn’t go far enough. There is another group — a large one — that stood by doing nothing while Americans grabbed people off the streets of foreign countries, took them to other foreign countries (because we don’t allow this sort of thing in the United States!) and tortured them until they said whatever our government wanted to hear. If you’re going to punish people for condoning torture, you’d better include the American citizenry itself.

Sixty-two million of us voted to reelect George W. Bush in 2004. That was more people than had ever voted for a presidential candidate up until then. (In 2008, Obama got 69 million.) Unlike 2000, Bush’s 2004 victory was solid and unambiguous.

Bush was so unpopular by the time he left office that it’s hard to believe he was reelected four years earlier. That gave him and his associates four more years to violate America’s dearest principles. But plenty of torture had gone on by the end of his first term. If you’re looking to punish the ultimate decision makers, you can’t stop at the Justice Department or even the White House. You’ve got to go all the way to the top. You have to ask the famous Howard Baker question about the voters themselves: What did we know, and when did we know it? [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — People don’t think much. It’s sad but true. So to point to the complicity of the American public in supporting the use of torture says as much about what people fail to reflect on as it says about what they believe. It also leaves out the instrumental role that journalists played in making torture acceptable by declining to insist on calling it torture.

In the name of impartiality, reporters generally sided with the Bush administration by using phrases such as “harsh interrogation techniques” without placing the terms in quotation marks. Even now, the New York Times in its reporting prefers the pseudo-neutral term “interrogation” as though it still awaits a directive from the ministry of information (the most effective agency in the executive branch that without a budget or any staff is able to persuade American journalists to police themselves).

When the press has been so shy about using the word “torture,” how are ordinary Americans supposed to reflect on the implications of a state-sanctioned torture program?

If we want to think about torture, we first need to think about human rights.

A few Americans might claim that “human rights” is a concept concocted by liberals and bodies like the UN, but I think the majority would accept the basic proposition that human rights deserve protection. Moreover, most would agree that human rights, if they are fitly named, must be utterly non-discriminatory. I’ve never heard anyone argue that such and such a person or such and such an action provided grounds that would justify someone’s human rights being taken away. Prisoners lose their liberty but they retain their human rights.

The most widely accepted enunciation of human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. In laying out prohibitions in conduct, the only act that ranks higher than the prohibition of torture in the articles of the declaration is the prohibition of slavery.

Article Five says:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

“No one” is unequivocal. It’s not, “no one, unless they’re suspected of being a terrorist,” or “no one, unless they’re regarded as an enemy of the state.”

The most fundamental rights exist for the protection of everyone and they can only perform that function if they protect anyone, irrespective of that individual’s history or predispositions.

So far, we have not really had a national conversation about torture. The Bush administration’s torture program was largely hidden — with the press corps’ complicity — behind a shield of terms whose function was to legitimize what had been done. The methods used were portrayed as debatable in character yet judicious in their application and effective in their outcome. Most Americans did not so much condone torture as much as swallow a claim that whatever was being done was done with the best of intentions and for the good of the country.

Even now, when we learn that torture is particularly favored by evangelical church-goers, I’m less inclined to assume that evangelical Christianity has a particular appeal for sadists, than that Americans whose religion and nationalistic fervor are deeply entwined, have a faith-based approach to national security. Their support for torture is an expression of their trust in George Bush — the man willing to do “what needed to be done.”

Ignorance absolves no one of moral responsibility, but the voices that America most needs to hear right now are those made vivid by nightmares — the enduring horror of the tortured and the torturers. Only when such publicly spoken and televised testimony shapes this debate will America begin the process of self-examination that is now needed.

Abu Zubaydah’s suffering

No one can pass unscathed through an ordeal like this. Abu Zubaydah paid with his mind.

Partly as a result of injuries he suffered while he was fighting the communists in Afghanistan, partly as a result of how those injuries were exacerbated by the CIA and partly as a result of his extended isolation, Abu Zubaydah’s mental grasp is slipping away.

Today, he suffers blinding headaches and has permanent brain damage. He has an excruciating sensitivity to sounds, hearing what others do not. The slightest noise drives him nearly insane. In the last two years alone, he has experienced about 200 seizures. [continued…]

Survey: Support for terror suspect torture differs among the faithful

The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did. [continued…]

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