Thursday, December 11, 2014

To Torture or Not to Torture?

The Senate’s report on the CIA’s use of torture in the years after 9/11 is, in a word, damning. Damning to the torturers, damning to the CIA brass, and damning to the Bush administration as a whole. All parties displayed ineptitude, an inability to objectively evaluate their own programs, and above all, pure, brutal, inhumanity.

Waterboarding. Which is torture. Not "enhanced" anything.
The report revealed haunting new facts, such as the use of rectal feeding, the inability of the CIA to keep track of just 119 prisoners (26 of whom shouldn’t have been detained in the first place), and the overall ineffectiveness of torture in extracting crucial information. The report’s true impact, however, is to condemn the practice of torture, which was banned by the White House in 2009 and remains illegal under both US and international law. It also calls into question just how much the Bush White House knew about its own so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” or EITs, and how well the program was working when it chose to continue it.

EIT is just a euphemism for torture. Rectal feeding/hydration is also just a euphemism for anal rape. The fact that torturers (I won’t give them the dignity of calling them agents) also used the threat of sexual and other violence against detainees’ family members reads like the human rights reports I’ve translated from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. It appears that CIA torturers learned from the worst. Reading the report confirms the worst fears of human rights defenders of what exactly went on in CIA detention sites, and the executive summary is still less than 10 percent of the classified full report.

The political response to the report has been striking, and (unsurprisingly) largely split along partisan lines. Senate Democrats decided to release the executive summary now for fear that a Republican-controlled Senate would not allow it to see the light of day. Republicans have largely dismissed the report’s findings, especially members of the Bush administration, as it was their party that initiated and “oversaw” the program. Yet one member of the Republican party, Sen. John McCain, who was himself tortured as a POW in the Vietnam War, gave a moving speech in support of the release of the report. I encourage you to read the entire transcript, but here’s a relevant quote (emphasis added):

“…torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

Senator McCain’s speech gets at the crux of the issue. The report confirms and expands on the knowledge that America violated its own ideals in the interest of national security, and to little effect. In a democratic country, we are all responsible for the actions of the government we elected, good and bad, and in 2004 Americans confirmed its support of the Bush-era policies of torture, black sites, and extraordinary rendition by re-electing Pres. Bush. In a way, we all bear the shame that should be felt at reading this report. It reflects on us, and the reflection is not a flattering one. It shows that in a time of need and chaos, we were willing to throw off the very values the 9/11 terrorists attacked, simply out of fear.

So where do we go from here? The report itself does not put an end to this issue. The Obama White House may have ended the practice of torture in 2009, but that does not mean that no future administration or CIA will use it again. The Justice Department legally approved the use of torture, and it is unlikely that any CIA officers, especially among the leadership, will face prosecution or even dismissal, even if the claims that they mislead the administration about torture’s effectiveness are further substantiated. Without prosecutions, without more legal rules barring torture (I mean, it’s already super, duper illegal and we did it anyways), this entire situation could replay itself in the future.

The question is one that Americans themselves need to grapple with as they elect their officials. The question shouldn’t be can we use torture, but should we? Is it ever justified? Do we use it even if it isn’t very effective? Do we use it even if we are scared, and hurt, and want to get the bad guys who made us that way?

Above all, we have to ask ourselves, if we don’t uphold the human rights values we claim to hold so dear, who will?

The answer, sadly, is no one, save a few western European countries. And that’s a legacy that I, as an American, do not want to live with.

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