Looking back at torture

President Obama has so far refused to look back at the previous administration’s use of torture, but David Cole says: “on this issue, we cannot move forward without looking back. Unless we acknowledge that what the United States did was not just a bad idea, but illegal, we risk treating torture as simply another policy option.”

Cole presents some of the reasons the administration is unwilling to grasp the issue and argues that Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, has taken a lead worth following.

The Justice Department is investigating allegations of torture at the CIA’s secret prisons — but is considering only the actions of interrogators who are reported to have exceeded the brutality authorized by the Justice Department and Bush’s Cabinet. Why are the underlings being investigated, but not those who set the illegal scheme in motion?

The answer is politics. A torture investigation that could implicate the former president and vice president would be too divisive, some say. It would consume the nation’s attention and divert us from addressing other urgent problems, such as health care, the economy, global warming and immigration.

But there is an even larger political obstacle: fear. The Democratic administration is afraid of appearing more concerned about the rights of terrorism suspects than about the security of the nation. Cheney and his supporters have already accused the administration of not being tough enough on terrorists; Democrats fear that a torture inquiry might play into critics’ hands.

There is another element at work here which is the moral relativism that underpins American views on violence.

Why would a society that widely supports the death penalty regard torture as unacceptable? From the American perspective, it’s OK to poison someone, electrocute them, hang them, shoot them (though not decapitate them), with the sole condition that a reasonably sound legal process is followed.

Torture might be illegal, but it’s not clear that it conflicts with the values that Americans live by, especially those applied to people who, in the popular imagination, deserve to suffer.

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4 thoughts on “Looking back at torture

  1. Norman

    Fear, pure & simple. The “Your with with us or against us that Bush/Cheney & Rove, drove home, well, what can we expect? The do as we say, because we can say it, along with you don’t have any rights – Bill of Rights – along with the suspension of certain parts of the Constitution, has been foisted upon the American public with out any come back.

    As the puzzle continues, the excuses of the present “O” administration takes on another meaning. That the Democrat’s, the Justice Department, along with the gazillion strong Intel, can’t find the courage to stand up for what made this Country what it used to be, is shameful, from the top down.

  2. Vince J.

    Obama’s refusal to prossecute previous admininstration for War Crimes has made him an acessory to those Crimes. Although, the escalated use of drones in Pakistan and Afeghanistan has made Obama a War Criminal himself.
    HAGUE!

  3. Laurie Knightly

    Seems bizarre to compare execution and torture. With the former, the objective is to extingusish life as quickly as possible. The latter is designed to prolong a painful anguished suffering to extract information that the person may not even possess. People often elect suicide to avert such pain. Many of us would prefer death to life in a cage. Life can get excrutiatingly boring even when free.

  4. Stephen Ward

    Here is the United States law on Torture, adopted in 1987, at the same time as we signed the treaty against torture.

    TITLE 18 > PART I > CHAPTER 113C > § 2340
    § 2340. Definitions

    As used in this chapter—

    (1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

    (2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

    (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

    (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

    (C) the threat of imminent death; or

    (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and . . .

    The “threat of imminent death” is the only part of the law that is clearly defined. Everything else is couched in subjective terms. What is “prolonged mental harm”? My understanding – I am not a lawyer – is that only by actually trying people for breaking the law can the vague generalities of the law be decided. Jay Bybee while working in the White House tried to define, much to his later regret, just how far you can go without meeting the criterion of “prolonged mental harm”. But it is the courts that must decide what prolonged mental harm actually is. By not prosecuting anyone for torture, the Obama administration has allowed Code 2340 to remain just as vague as was intended when it was written.

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