July 26, 2009
Torture is a complicated subject, and I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. In order to begin talking about torture it’s important to put the issue into context, and that means setting the historical record straight. The proclamations that the United States does not torture, or that we only started torturing during the Bush presidency are misleading at best. For a long time now the United States has been sending suspects to other countries to be tortured. We have tortured by proxy for some time. It’s also important to point out that even when the United States signed on to the international Torture Convention, they did so only after amending the US interpretation to allow for various kinds of psychological torture. Still, Bush crossed a significant line during his presidency when he legalized torture at the hands of our government.
So we find ourselves in a situation where we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we only lost our innocence during the Bush presidency, when in fact we haven’t had it for a long time. These facts, which somehow escape our “liberal media”, completely change the nature of this debate— and I find it quite disturbing that even when this argument was at its most shrill and frenzied in early 2009, it was being waged on false terms. How sad it is, that a large portion of the American population finds the practice deplorable, yet their tax dollars have been supporting it for longer than they know. And how much sadder, by the way, that such practices are much more likely to occur in the future because President Obama decided to tuck away the images that may have given the American people that visceral jolt they so desperately need.
Here’s where the argument is going to get complicated: If the United States has been willing to put funding towards researching and executing various kinds of torture, and if they’ve taken the risk of doing it secretly for so long, then it must be somewhat effective. I have no doubt that persistent psychological torture (combined with indefinite detention) could break some people down to the point where they will spill anything. So here we get to the effectiveness vs. morality argument—but allow me to digress a little before I broach that subject…
The issue of detainee torture in wartime that we are working through in the US is really a symptom of a larger problem we have. That is, the clashing of our national identity with covert government actions. While it’s hardly necessary to have a vote on every single national security initiative, some issues are large and far-reaching enough that the American people deserve to be made aware. When average Americans ask “why do they hate us?” it is because they are unaware of the ways in which their tax dollars are making an impact around the world. Arguably ignorance is the culprit but, but really, it’s quite difficult for even a shrewd and persistent person to gain a real sense of perspective in a world that’s constantly being “spun”. To make matters more complicated, we have instances of government officials carrying out secret programs that run contrary to American ideals. And the “blowback” affects all of us. Bush’s torture program is a perfect example—an incredibly controversial move was kept secret from the American public and we only found out about it years later. This “line crossing” was an issue that deserved public debate. Then, even if we did carry on with brutal interrogation techniques, we could at least be honest with who we were. But instead we find ourselves in yet another situation where we tout our values and lecture other nations on human rights, but we secretly violate fundamental human rights principles. I feel this hypocrisy is the worst possible image we can project.
So what do we do? We make up our minds about who we are. We decide what our rules of engagement will be with detainees in any war (publically), and we play by those rules. We could decide that we will engage in harsh interrogation techniques if the situation necessitates it, and we could do so in an open and frank manner. While this wouldn’t be my approach it is still preferable to doing it in secret. At least then the American people would have bought into it and we wouldn’t risk looking like frauds when the beans get spilled. But then we will have also lost a significant chunk of our moral standing. We cannot hope to convince other nations respect basic human rights if we drop our commitment to them when the going gets tough. Rather, the safest bet in this murky issue is to stick to an internationally respected standard, like the Geneva Conventions. And of course, we already had very specific rules on POW treatment that had been reached through serious, and mostly open, debate. The burden of proof should be on our government to show the American people why they think it’s necessary to deviate from international conventions on human rights issues. If torture is effective enough to warrant its use, then let’s roll out the evidence. But why all the secrets? If something is so threatening that we have to deviate from the Geneva Conventions, shouldn’t it be a public issue?
Even based on the available evidence we know that the “effectiveness” issue isn’t cut and dry either. Torture has the very inconvenient side effect of inducing false confessions. For a recent example just look to Iran, where the Ayatollah’s thugs are beating “confessions” out of protesters just so they will recant on television. This is, of course, a recent example, but it’s no anomaly. A quick study of history will show that torture has a well earned reputation for eliciting false confessions—this is why the tactic has long been a mainstay of despotic regimes. The excessive waterboarding of KSM happened at a very suspicious time: right before the invasion of Iraq. When I began looking in to this issue I suspected that KSM was waterboarded 183 times in that one month just to produce the false evidence used to build a case for the invasion. This argument broke down upon close examination of the time tables. The timing and the evidence suggests that harsh interrogation techniques were used against KSM with the express purpose of trying to find a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, well after the wheels had been set in motion to go to war. The official date given for KSM’s capture is March 1, 2003 (though some say he may have been captured in Sept 2002). The US began its assault on March 18, 2003. During that month of March, KSM was waterboarded 183 times. The official dates suggest that information was obtained to justify the invasion—the Bush administration began making its case to the UN and to the American people back in 2002, and wartime preparations had begun long before March of 2003. The conclusion is almost more disturbing—they didn’t need a substantial link to convince Americans that Al Qaeda and Iraq were connected. The gears of war had been set in to motion without evidence of any real connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The evidence suggests he was tortured for political purposes-- to extract a confession that would be useful as propaganda, to justify the invasion they’d already begun.
This entire torture affair is a big stinking turd. But we need to sort through it if we are ever going to have a chance to correct the historical record, and prevent this from happening again. I can only hope that the ACLU’s effort to initiate a comprehensive torture investigation works (that there would even be a debate over whether or not to initiate an investigation is reprehensible). In any case such an investigation can only be useful if it exposes all the torture related documentation, to include KSM’s March interrogation transcript, to the harsh light of day.