is in response to an article by X in the Observer of December 8, 2004, titled “Torturing Prisoners of War
Shouldn’t Concern US Citizens.”
Mr. X’s premise is that because of 9/11, the military’s use of torture is an efficient and justifiable method
of achieving our objectives in Iraq and
enhancing our own security. If the situation calls for torture and many people’s
lives are at stake, then Mr. X reasons, “screw the human rights aspect of people that live in some third world
country half way around the world.”
One has to
wonder what difference it would make in terms of human rights whether people live in the third world, or if their country
is half way around the world. Is there a hierarchy of countries more deserving of human rights than others? Do some countries
deserve less human rights than others presumably because they are poor and their distant voices cannot or will not be heard?
Only Mr. X can answer that.
While Mr. X’s
advocacy of torture under certain circumstances is obviously rooted in his concern for his fellow Americans, he says “Human
rights should go out the window when it comes to a war.” But can those countries who themselves have assumed the role
of defenders of human rights practice torture? The ostensible goal of the American military presence is to build democracy
and respect for legal standards in a place where there was none. Where does torture fit in?
The fact is
that torture has neither made the troops safer nor this nation’s objectives easier. Wars are fought not only on the
battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of people. Propaganda is vitally important. The
pictures now available all over the Internet of hoodings, beatings, rape, sexual humiliation, and electric shock have given
the greatest propaganda advantage imaginable to Al Qaeda and radical Islamists.
achieving anything positive, the images have led to an increase in the number of our enemies. The prestigious London-based
International Institute for Strategic Studies recently reported that recruitment for Al Qaeda has accelerated and made the
world less safe. It estimates worldwide Al Qaeda membership now at 18,000, with 1,000 active in Iraq. The use of torture has divided the US
and Britain from their allies; and allies
are important because, despite the rantings of talk show hosts, a worldwide campaign against terrorism requires cooperation
and coordination between many nations. Even more important, torture has caused both countries an irreparable loss of moral
authority, and ultimately weakened the war on terrorism- which may in the long run cost more lives than the dubious gains
that came out of brutalizing and humiliating prisoners.
Americans of my father’s generation lost their lives in order to set a precedent of human rights and dignity for generations
to come. It was a precedent that should not be overridden. The Nuremberg
war tribunals of the late 1940’s were the culmination of this process which gave a voice to those who had paid such
a tremendous price. Nazi war criminals were tried for horrific medical experimentation on humans, use of slave labor, plunder
of private property, mass murder of civilians, the manufacture of chemical weapons,
and of course the widespread torture of POWs. At the trail, the Nazis presented
well-constructed rationalizations to explain away their atrocities. But the verdict of those trials demonstrated the moral
resolve in the unequivocal repudiation of torture by the free world- as well as a reminder that if individual governments
permit individuals to do this, then the world will hold them accountable to a higher moral standard.
If we lose
this moral high ground by condoning and codifying the torture of POWs, we will have stumbled toward another Vietnam, where
the US forces won every major battle, killed a million people, dropped more bombs on this tiny country than were dropped on
all countries in all previous wars in the history of the world, and still went home in defeat.
fathers were no strangers to this question. That’s why they wrote the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment
into the Constitution. Of course they could have said that torture could be allowed by police under very special circumstances-
in order to insure public safety where many people’s lives are at stake. But they didn’t because they knew where
this could lead. Look around at the world today and you will see many countries that -in the name of internal security- tolerate extrajudicial executions, disappearances,
arbitrary arrest and detention and, like Mr. X, see the observance and enforcement of human rights as a needless obstacle
that hinders their security needs.
is debatable that torture works at all. First of all, some people are actually able to withstand it, and the majority of people
who cannot will give any answer to their questioners to stop the torment. Moreover, torture corrupts the people who do it.
Look closely at the faces of the people in those digital photos from Abu Ghraib. The soldiers are not conducting torture with
dispassionate professionalism or a sense of military discipline.
Instead they are smiling sadistically, taking photos, caught up in the situation. Those faces should remind
us that the veneer of civilization is indeed thin, and the consequences of removing restraint are unpredictable.
C.G. Jung wrote,”
The healthy man does not torture others- generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.” Show me a country that
passively condones torture – for any reason at all- and I’ll show you a country that you wouldn’t want to