I wrote this piece right after Obama was inaugurated in 2009 while the country was debating whether to prosecute anybody from the Bush administration for torture and other crimes. In light of the release of the torture report this week, I thought it would be appropriate to republish it. – Mike Burns
While there has been a lot of media noise and populist punditry concerning the Bush torture program lately, what we don’t have is a clear analysis of the actual arguments put forth by the administration for these techniques. According to the administration and the CIA, there seems to be three basic arguments.
- The detainees are not covered under the Geneva Convention.
- The techniques being used are not torture.
- High value information was gained by using these techniques.
However, these are not arguments for the need to commit acts of torture. They are instead arguments made in defense of these acts. In other words, this is nothing more than an outline for a jury nullification defense. Bush and Cheney and the OLC lawyers are simply asking the American people to absolve them of any guilt because it was special circumstances that required special rules. They are arguing it was justified, not arguing that it was necessary.
Why did the Bush administration decide to torture? If reliable information is really needed, aren’t there other ways to get that information without resorting to torture? The Bush administration, it seems, went willingly down that path and often used torture, not as a last resort, but as the first option. Why?
There is, in fact, a very finite number of reasons why a government or an individual would actually torture another human being. None of them are reason enough, in my opinion, but here they are:
- They enjoy it.
- As cruel and unusual punishment.
- To get a confession and they don’t really care if it’s true or not.
- The belief that it is the only way to get specific life saving information. (the Jack Bower argument)
- They are “fishing” for some undetermined piece of information a prisoner might or might not have.
Let us assume that the first two are not applicable in this case (at least we hope so). As for reason, #3, since the Bush administration never showed any inclination to actually prosecute any of the detainees, we can probably also set this one aside. We can also eliminate #4. If there was in fact a single life saving piece of information that the government needed to get in a hurry that was so critical whereby torture becomes the logical, most expedient solution, then I believe we would have heard all the pertinent details already. Since no such details have been presented either on the record or off, then it is fair to assume that there was no Jack Bower scenario in play here. Something like that would have been too sensational to keep quiet about. We would have heard all about how the Bush administration saved the day. Remember, they have been trying to redeem themselves for the epic intelligence failure of 9/11. There is no way they would keep it secret if they had just prevented another disaster.
This brings us to argument #5. The recent disclosure that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times over a one month period and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times over another long month of interrogation seems to indicate that there was no ticking clock counting down to doomsday. These individuals, at least, were being tortured as a fishing expedition simply to see if they had anything else to tell. The logic goes like this; Maybe they have information they weren’t telling us. Maybe torture will get that information that might exist. Maybe it will be accurate. Maybe it will be pertinent. Maybe it’s the only way can get this supposed information and maybe it isn’t all he knows so lets torture him some more just to be sure.
If the sole motive for torture is a vague idea that pushing an individual hard enough elicits information that might be valuable, then the Bush administration is really no better then the Gestapo, the NKVD or the Spanish Inquisition. In all these cases, torture becomes just another tool in the investigators tool box, not the irrevocable crossing of a moral line. It becomes mundane, not imperative. It is a perfect example of the banality of evil, not, as the Bush administration would have you believe, a righteous or justified act.
Their stated defense of torture is simply an attempt to get us, as a country, to look away and ignore the horrors of torture. Vice President Cheney, in particular, is eager to claim that the ends justify the means. If this was the case, however, then any means could be justified. If waterboarding doesn’t work lets try electro-shock treatment. If that doesn’t work, how about the rack? Of course, you could go on and on further down that path until we reach a pit of moral depravity so deep we can never find our way out. Where does Dick Cheney draw the line? Where do we?
If we choose not to prosecute and, as some have said, put this behind us and move on, then it will not truly absolve these men of their acts. I doubt that their conscience can truly ever be clear. Unfortunately, they have also imposed that burden on the rest of the American public as well. They did what they did because they were frightened and scared of the dark. That’s understandable. We were all a little scared of the dark after 9-11. Being frightened, however, is no defense for willfully inflicting pain on another human being over and over again for days and weeks, no matter how evil we think that person is or how much high value information he might have. Until the Bush administration, our country had never made torture part of our official policy. If we want to make sure that we, as a country, never do this again, we have to face our fears and stand up and confront those individuals and institutions who committed this vicious attack on our nation’s ideals. In the end, there can be no justification for torture, there can be no absolution. There can be only shame.
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