The Torture Debate Is Not Yet Over

We need a policy on torture.

We thought we had one. President George W. Bush stated it with admirable clarity during a visit to Panama in 2005. "We do not torture," he said. But that turned out to be untrue.

A series of revelations about U.S. prisoners being subjected to sleep deprivation, extreme heat and cold, loud music, stress positions, wall-slamming, enclosure in small, dark boxes (with or without the company of insects) and, of course, waterboarding, were euphemistically sanitized under the catchall category of "enhanced interrogation techniques." (How many angels can writhe on the head of a pin?)

But no one, in the final analysis, quarrels with the conclusion that the goal of these techniques was to induce someone to reveal information that he would have preferred keeping to himself. Indeed, while the term "waterboarding" has been with us for only a few years, the technique of simulated drowning has a long and notorious history, dating back to at least the Spanish Inquisition and repeatedly cropping up in "enhanced interrogation venues" from Vietnam to Algeria, from Chile to Cambodia.

The popularity of the technique owes something to the fact that, when carefully administered, it leaves no visible trace. Some prisoners of the Khmer Rouge, however, shackled hand and foot, broke bones in their wrists and ankles, so great were their struggles to escape the agonies of simulated drowning.

Interviewer Scott Hennen of radio station WDAY was probably unaware of that historical trivia when, in 2006, he had this exchange with then-Vice President Cheney:

HENNEN: "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?"

CHENEY: "Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

We have actually passed into a new phase of the discussion. There are now fewer and fewer people holding the position that torture was "not what we're involved in." The argument has evolved into the positing of two questions: Did it work and was it necessary? Of course torture works, in some measure. There have, no doubt, been brave and incredibly strong-willed men and women who have resisted the most horrific tortures and given up nothing. The greater likelihood, however, is that a torture subject will give up not just all, but frequently more than he knows; anything, just to put an end to the pain. It is an argument that causes some professional interrogators to contend that gaining a prisoner's trust and cooperation is, over time, a far more reliable procedure than torture.

"Over time," of course, is precisely the problem. What if there is no time? Or what, more precisely, if the time before untold numbers of civilians are poisoned, infected or vaporized can be measured by the remaining ticks of an armed bomb? Or, somewhat more ambiguously, if a threat to society is known to exist, but the "length of the fuse" remains uncertain? The argument at that point takes on a certain tortured logic of its own. Having established at least two circumstances that would justify draconian measures, their proponents take refuge in the restraint demonstrated by resorting only to "torture lite." Having, in other words, established a foundation for the implementation of any and all means, they balk at the threshold of the dungeon.

Why shrink from medieval methods when the goal is the immediate terror (and cooperation) they would presumably provoke? It can only be to create artificial distinctions or, more likely, confusion in the public mind. Rendition, shipping the prisoners off to some country with fewer qualms, offers the illusion of salvation; but it is a sorry moral argument and it fails even the purely practical test. Rendition takes time, which is precisely what we may not have under the circumstances.

Under certain circumstances, then, torture is either an imperative or it is not. Quibbling about definitions is merely a distraction. When a technique induces such fear and stress, so much emotional and physical pain, that it causes a victim to break and reveal what he has desperately tried to withhold, that is torture, no matter how sanitary the environment. If we would define a given technique as torture when it is inflicted on a citizen of ours, then that is also torture when our interrogators employ the methods. We know what it is. We know there are times when extraordinary circumstances will lead to its use no matter what our public claims.

Having said that, torture should be, clearly and unambiguously, against the law; as it is for those who safeguard our homes and streets domestically. Cases are thrown out of court because essential evidence was extracted under duress. Occasionally, brutal cops and correctional officers are even prosecuted and imprisoned. That has not led to the elimination of torture in our precincts and prisons, but it is a deterrent.

Let those who violate our stated national principles on torture be put on notice. It is against American law no matter where or under what circumstances it is employed; and violations of that law will lead to prison.

Is it possible that a threat to national security and the lives of many Americans may, at a subsequent trial, be determined to have justified the violation of that law? May a presidential pardon be warranted? Perhaps. But moral clarity and America's standing in the world demand that the burden of proof be on those who can find no alternative to torture.

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