The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
- William Shakespeare
It’s even worse than we thought.
It is, isn’t it?
If you’ve read the Senate Select Committee On Intelligence’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, the executive summary of which was released yesterday, you know it’s even worse than we thought.
The torture, I mean.
Of course, we knew that our government tortured people. We knew that. That’s no secret. They told us. And we Americans? We let them do it and a lot of us cheered them on – certainly not all of us, maybe not even a majority, but enough.
And why not torture? No really, why the hell not?
After what our enemies did to us, after the crime they committed, after the carnage they wrought, were we not justified in any measure?
We wanted blood.
We wanted revenge and we had a right to that payback did we not?
We wanted to make them suffer, those filthy pig humping sons of bitches, the ones that dared attack the United States. The ones who killed our people.
We wanted them to grovel before our towering righteous wrath.
We wanted to grind their God into dust, to crush their primitive religion, to erase their murderous philosophy from the face of the earth. Our God, our religion, our philosophy, our way of life, is better is it not? Are we not exceptional, we Americans? Are we not morally superior? Well?
So why shouldn’t we torture the bastards? Why shouldn’t we destroy them? Is that not our duty? Didn’t our parents and grandparents go forth and hunt down the Nazis and the Bushido Warriors of the Rising Sun and wipe them out? Hell, our grandfathers vaporized two entire cities full of murderous terrorists, what’s a little torture compared to that? And do we not hail the people who dropped the bombs as The Greatest Generation? Can we do any less? Can we?
We wanted the people who attacked us to die, just as we had died when the towers fell, just as we had died in the wreckage of the burning Pentagon and in the cornfields outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
More than anything, we wanted them to be afraid.
Just like they had made us afraid.
They aren’t human, these enemies. That’s what we tell ourselves, isn’t it? They’re not human, they’re not men. That’s how we justified it. They’re pigs. Dogs. Towel heads. Camel jockeys. Ragheads. Hajis. Sand niggers. Vermin. They are terrorists and nothing more. So what does it matter if we torture them?
They deserve no mercy.
They are entitled to no rights.
But even then – even then – we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to admit what we were doing, could we? We couldn’t quite admit what we Americans allowed to be done in our names. So we called it “enhanced interrogation” and “coercive methods” and “rendition” instead of “torture.” And we said those words in the same fashion that we Americans used to say “separate but equal” to describe our apartheid.
When Congress wrote the Patriot Act and the Protect America Act, when the President gave the order, when the Director of the CIA issued his directives, they couldn’t use euphemisms. They couldn’t hide from it, no, they had to spell it out in all its ugly truth. That’s why they made those sections of the law, those orders and directives, classified. That’s why it’s taken more than a decade for this report.
When the Bush administration classified what we were actually doing, when they used the words “enhanced interrogation,” they did it not to hide torture from our enemies, but to hide it from us.
You might want to give that some thought.
You see, that’s why those interrogation tapes were destroyed by the CIA.
Because when you see a man being waterboarded, well then you just can’t hide from it anymore. When you see, really see, those images, well, there’s only one word for it.
When you stop hiding behind the euphemisms, you are faced with the brutal ugly dishonorable truth.
That’s what we’re talking about here, torture, and make no mistake.
The United States of America is a nation that tortures its enemies, its prisoners, its own citizens, and the innocent – oh, yes, that’s correct, we tortured prisoners that later turned out to be innocent. But then again, given our track record vis a vis the death penalty, I suppose nobody should be surprised.
We Americans, we knew what was going on, at least in broad strokes, sure we did. And we were willing to turn a blind eye to it, reluctantly or enthusiastically, but we were. Yes, we were and don’t you think otherwise. Because the men who gave those orders, the men who tortured others, and the men who stood by and watched them do it without protest even though they knew it was wrong, well those men are all still walking around free, aren’t they? They’ve never, ever, been held to account in even the slightest way.
Some Americans even think they are heroes.
But, hang on a minute. Torture works. We got good actionable intelligence from torture.
No, no. Stop right there. That’s hokum. Torture doesn’t work. You can’t depend on any information you get using torture.
That’s what we’re arguing about today: whether or not torture works.
That’s the basis of today’s argument in Washington. That’s what the TV pundits and the politicians are arguing about. For a lot of Americans, that’s what it comes down to: whether or not torture works.
That’s the conservative argument, torture works, therefore it’s moral. It’s justified. So long as you call it “enhanced interrogation.”
That’s the liberal argument, torture doesn’t work, therefore it’s immoral. It’s not justified, no matter what you call it.
On one side you’ve got people like former vice-president Dick Cheney who is unapologetic in his unswerving support of torture.
Yes, conservatives say, torture is bad and ugly, but it’s necessary in defense of freedom. These guys, these terrorists, they’re hardcore. If we don’t use every means necessary, if we take any option off the table, the terrorists win.
They ask in dire tones: What if – what if – torture is the only way to prevent another 9/11, another Pearl Harbor, or worse.
Much, much worse.
What if the terrorists had a nuke? What then?
I’ve seen this argument a thousand times in the last decade, I’m sure you have too. Maybe you’ve even made it.
That’s the ultimate justification, that’s why we must keep torture on the table, that’s why we must get them to talk, that’s why we must get the information by any means necessary.
It always comes down to this trump card, the one nobody wants to argue with: What if?
“What if the terrorists had your family? What if they had an atom bomb hidden in a city with your family strapped to it and you caught one of those bastards and there was only an hour left and there was no time to evacuate and millions were going die? Including your family! Huh? What about that? Are you saying you wouldn’t do whatever was necessary to get that information? I bet you would!”
You’re right, I would.
I, me personally? I would do whatever it took, including torture, if that was the only way to save the city, if that was the only way to save my family, if that was the only way to save you. As a military officer, yes, I would. Absolutely. I wouldn’t order my men to do it, I’d do it myself. I shove a hose up the bastard’s nose and turn on the water. I’d shoot out his knees. I’d cut off his balls. You bet. If that’s what it took. I’d do it without hesitation.
And I’d do it knowing I was breaking the law, and I would expect to be tried for the crime and sent to prison.
Because even if I saved the day, I’d be wrong.
Good intentions do not justify evil.
A just cause does not justify injustice. No more than if I donned a cape and tights and drove around Gotham in the night killing criminals without trial or due process.
Think about something: what if we let police search you and your property without a warrant? What if law enforcement was allowed to randomly come into your house or place of business and go through your closets and your hard drive and your car? If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve really got nothing to worry about right? You can trust the cops not to abuse this power, can’t you? I mean, sure it would be inconvenient, but isn’t that a fair trade for the decrease in crime? Sure as hell, the cops would find drugs and porn and stolen goods and people who cheat on their taxes and abuse their spouses.
So why don’t we allow that?
No, think about it. Why do we require the police to get warrants before searching private property? Why did they put that into the Constitution?
If I tortured a terrorist, even if I saved the city, even if I was a hero, I’d still be wrong.
I’d still face trial, I’d likely go to jail.
And that is precisely what should happen.
The morality of this supposed situation is a choice for human beings. It is a moral choice for men, for women, for individuals.
The morality of nations is something else entirely.
Morality is a choice for people, not governments.
Torture, no matter how pure the motive is against everything this country stands for. Everything.
The men who founded this country, who designed our government, they knew this. But, they were not fools. They knew the pitfalls of absolutism and inflexible law. They knew that they couldn’t make the Constitution too rigid, or the new United States would rapidly outgrow it. So they made it fairly general except in the areas that they knew needed rigid and specific limits, such as habeas corpus and individual rights.
The Founders weren’t stupid, they were in fact brilliant, and they could play the “what if? game too.
So, they built in safeguards.
If I torture a terrorist into confessing the location of the bomb and I saved the city, I’d still be wrong. I’d expect to go to jail.
And that, my friends, is exactly what a presidential pardon is for.
It’s not to pardon corrupt politicians. It’s not to pardon the rich and connected. It’s not to clean the slates of hacks and flacks and flunkies and contributors and lobbyists. And it is most certainly not to pardon those who would turn us into our own enemies through abuse of power.
The Presidential Pardon is a safeguard built into the framework of our nation as a relief valve for exactly this type of situation.
While there may be times when brutal action might be justified by personal choice (that is the basis of most of our heroic action movies, isn’t it? And the source of that strawman nuclear bomb scenario above), the same should never be an option for government.
As I have written elsewhere, once the enemy becomes a prisoner and no longer has a means to resist, we become solely responsible for his or her life, well being, and treatment, both by our own code of conduct and by international agreement.
Now certainly it may be extremely difficult to treat a terrorist who tried to destroy your nation and your loved ones humanely.
Certainly. No sane person disputes that. I’ve taken prisoners in defense of my country, trust me on this, it’s goddamned hard.
However that, that right there, is the very definition of moral courage.
You cannot lay claim to the moral high ground if you engage in the same brutality as your enemies.
If the United States of America insists on calling itself exceptional, then it must be the exception. And there is nothing exceptional about torture, it is all too horribly common in the world. The United States holds up as its greatest triumphs the defeat of tyranny great and small, from the Nazis and the Empire of Japan to Baby Doc Duvalier to Manuel Noriega to Saddam Hussein. And those who rage and bellow, who invoke the name of their God and their sandaled prophet to decry the supposed moral decline of modern America, are the very ones who today cheer the immorality of torture most vigorously.
That’s something they might need to talk to their God about.
On the other side of the argument are those who decry torture as ineffective.
They’re wrong. Or rather they’re not right, not quite.
Torture isn’t one size fits all. Some folks start talking the minute they’re captured. Some will resist to the bitter end. But all human beings have breaking points. Pour enough water up their noses, rip out enough fingernails, pump enough electricity through their testicles or vagina, rape them over and over, break their bones, shove a red hot poker up their ass, stack them in naked meat pyramids, lock them in a sensory deprivation tank until they go insane, shoot their kids in front of them, sooner or later they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear.
The thing is, they have to believe you mean it.
You can’t just put an empty gun against their head and pull the trigger, they have to believe you’re fully willing to kill them.
It’s not enough to pour water up their nose, they have to believe, believe, that you’re willing to let them drown to get what you want. Your enemies, the ones in your custody and the ones still out there, they have to believe that you’re willing to go all the way.
For torture to work, you can’t just pretend to be a torturer, you actually have to be a torturer.
For Americans, because we are who we are, torture is mostly an ineffective means of gathering information. Mostly. But not completely. And so there’s always the counter: we can’t take it off the table, because if it works, even once, when everything is on the line, well, then it’s justified.
And that’s the pitfall.
See, let’s just say that torture is a reliable and effective means of interrogation. It’s not, but for the sake of argument let’s say it is.
Theft is an effective means of making a living.
Murder is an effective means of winning an argument.
Abortion is an effective means of ending a pregnancy.
Terrorism is an effective means of conveying a political point.
Again, if you’re going to lay claim to the moral high ground, then you’d better walk the walk or you’re nothing but a miserable hypocrite and no better than your enemies.
In the days before we became torturers, before September 11th, 2001, the CIA, the FBI, they had all the information necessary to stop that attack – and they got that information without torture, without compromising our values, without becoming our enemies.
But they failed to act on it.
The problem wasn’t a lack of information, the problem was a failure of intelligence. We had the information, but our intelligence organizations refused to work together and to share that information – and they still do.
Torture won’t change that, in fact, the techniques and classification of information gained via torture ensures that the information will be tightly controlled and not shared among those who could make best use of it. Again, I was a professional intelligence officer, trust me on this, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Over and over and over.
The problem wasn’t that we couldn’t get our enemies to talk, the problem was that those in authority, congress, the Bush Administration, the intelligence community, refused to listen – and they still do.
The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of torture matters not at all. It’s a red herring.
It doesn’t matter if you're right or wrong about the effectiveness of torture.
It doesn’t matter if your motives are patriotic and your heart is pure.
It doesn’t matter if your cause is just.
It doesn’t matter how terrible your enemy.
Listen to me, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man of God, if you molest a child, you’re a goddamned child molester.
And it comes down to this: If you engage in torture, you're a torturer.
And you live in a country that tortures people.
It’s really just that simple.
“The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today. The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called ‘universal jurisdiction.’ Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.”
- Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, 1984
Address to the Nation upon signing the UN Convention On Torture