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Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The War on Terrorism

Why Should I Care If a Terrorist Was Tortured?

[digg-reddit-me]Because torture has played an insignificant role in American life until recently – and it’s recent history is still somewhat shrouded in secrecy – the best arguments for and against torture are abstract. The two sides of the debate tend to be simplified as these two competing scenarios:

[Interior establishing shot] Jack Bauer approaches terrorist with an menacing grimace on his face.

BAUER: Tell me where the ticking time bomb that will destroy a major American city is!

TERRORIST: Never!

BAUER: (plunges a pen into the terrorist’s knee) Tell me!

TERRORIST: 415 Main Street, hidden in the basement under a tarp!

And on the other hand, there’s Shep Smith on Fox News:

The arguments over whether or not we torture or whether or not it is effective are secondary. The simple question to ask when we want to determine what is and is not torture is, “What would we call the methods being used if they were being done by our enemies to our soldiers?” If we would call it torture then, it is torture when we do it as well. Questions of effectiveness are more complex – but in short, it seems that torture works very well – for some things. It’s effectiveness as a truth serum though does not seem high.

The heart of this debate though is not whether or not terrorism is effective – or whether or not we tortured – but:

Why should I care what was done to some evil fuck like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad who wants to kill me and killed thousands of Americans on September 11?

The main motivator of people’s opposition to government action is because they can see it might happen to them. 

Why did students oppose the draft? Because it might happen to them. Why are citizens outraged over raising taxes? Because it will happen to them. Why are people concerned about the Kelo decision? Because their homes might be taken from them. Normally, a state will try to counter these concerns by ensuring that there is a fair and transparent process in place to prevent arbitrary actions by the government – in other words, to ensure that the law protects individuals. But national security, under the Bush administration, was a lawless zone. The president maintained he had the power to declare anyone a terrorist, imprison them without trial forever, and torture them. He managed to do this without raising an outcry, without raising concerns that he might be coming after your family next because he did most of it in secret and because the people he went after were foreign, Muslim, Arab – in other words alien to most Americans. It was harder then for many Americans – who did not have any Muslims or Arabs in their family – to identify with the Others being tortured even if they were later found to be innoccent of any crime and released. This is certainly a failure of empathy – and a failure of Christian values – on the part of many Americans. 

But even so, we should care if our government is torturing people – even if it only is torturing people it suspects of being terrorists. Here’s four reasons why you should care:

  • Because it might be you next. 
    Yes –
    the detainees seem different – but they always seem different at first. Once the government expands its powers to torture and arbitrary arrest of a group of people suspected of one crime, it quickly expands from there. Anti-terrorism statutes – though not as far as we know torture – have already been used against anti-war groups and teenagers writing violent fantasies. 
  • Because it corrupts.
    What a government does shapes the type of government it is and the society. This is the basis for much of our politics – and the reason conservatives are so concerned about irresponsible government spending for example. We can see how torture corrupted our national security apparatus – how it infected it like a virus. Some of our top national security officials may be indicted as war criminals as a result of Ronald Reagan’s Convention Against Torture. False confessions are the inevitable result of torture – which is why our legal system, in the interests of justice, does not accept any evidence tainted by torture. This raises all sorts of issues relating to the perpetrators of September 11. We may never be able to bring them to justice given our laws. (This is one of the primary motivations behind Spain’s Judge Garzon’s attempt to go after torturers in America.) At the same time, information elicited by torture led our intelligence agencies to believe that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working together – and that Saddam was preparing to share his weapons of mass destruction with them. This information has all been proved to be false. So, our justice system and our national security apparatus are now in a bind as a result of these corruptions.
  • Because it is immoral and was done in your name.
    I am of the opinion that much of morality is really the passed-on wisdom of our foreparents – the not always obvious principles that allowed them to thrive over generations. In this way, the fact that torture is immoral has much to do with the way in which it corrupts. 
  • Because it matters whether government officials follow the law.
    Without the constraints of law, the power of the government is near absolute – and the government itself can easily become a far greater threat to the American way of life than the terrorists. A people will never remain free if it preemptively surrenders its liberties out of fear.

One thing that has historically separated America from our enemies is that we were the ones who did not torture. The British tortured American prisoners – but General Washington refused to allow the torture of the British prisoners; when American soldiers were accused of torturing Filipinos during the brutal insurgency campaign during Teddy Roosevelt’s term in office, Roosevelt himself made sure that the crimes were not covered up and the men accused were tried for their crimes. The Communists and the Nazis were known to torture – but America did not – and because of this, when the American army was marching through Germany in the final days of World War II, the German army fled to us so they could surrender to ours. When Ronald Reagan sought to demonstrate to the world our moral superiority over the Soviet Union, he pushed through the United Nations Ban on Torture. There is a wisdom in this history – a wisdom passed down through generations of Americans – that held that there is something about America that does not allow it to condone torture. That is why Captain Ian Fishback wrote that he was not willing to torture because he was not willing “to give up even the smallest piece of the idea that is America.” It is why Senator John McCain proclaimed on the floor of the Senate that while our enemies do not deserve mercy, “This is not about them. This is about us.” 

I would be glad if something awful and painful befell the terrorists who wish us harm. But we do not deserve to become a country that does that. As a country, we are not judged by our faith alone – but by how we act. We have now seen the corruption of our national security apparatus by a rather controlled and minimized authorization of torture.

So, why should anyone care that we tortured some evil fuck?

Because by doing so we are endangering our way of life – the foundational principles and institutions that create our fragile system of democracy and checks and balances and laws constraining even the president him or herself.

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