Watching the news this past week has been infuriating. Just when I thought I’d exhausted all of the anger I could possibly direct at the Bush administration, these memos are released, the far-right reacts by defending the indefensible, and Obama sends signals that none of these war-criminals are going to be held accountable for the harm they’ve caused. If I ever had any hope of ever being able to say once again, as I did when I was a child, that I could be proud of my country, that hope is quickly dissolving.
There are so many aspects to this issue that I’ll need to write extensively in order to cover everything. I’ll begin by stating the argument from principle, which is the only argument I feel should be relevant to this debate in the first place. For most of its history, the United States has championed its proud tradition of treating its enemies better than they treat us, which is what has allowed us to assert the moral high ground in international relations for so long. As far back as the revolutionary war, George Washington ordered his troops to take good care of the British prisoners-of-war even though the British showed no such mercy to captured Americans. His rationale was clear: the British would not be able to accuse their American enemies of cruelty and barbarism, as much as they would have liked to have done so. This was how we treated our prisoners throughout every armed conflict up to and including World War II, when German soldiers who had been captured by other nations found themselves envious of those who had been captured and treated so well by the United States. Our reputation for honor and civility was no small part of the reason we were viewed so positively by the international community, including the countries we had fought against, in the latter half of the 20th century.
Then along came the Bush administration and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 which happened on their watch. These attacks may not have been preventable, but there was intelligence that Al Quaeda operatives were planning an attack on the U.S. involving hi-jakcing planes. This intelligence had been gathered, incidentally, without the use of torture. But the attacks took place, they were hugely successful, and those at the top responded exactly the way Osama bin Laden wanted them to: they got us entangled in a costly war in Afghanistan. That alone may have been necessary—I don’t know enough about the facts to form a solid judgment. But then they took it one step further, and decided to use the 9/11 attacks to justify what the neo-conservatives had been hoping to do for years, and engage in a completely unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Six years later, our military is over-extended, our economy is crumbling, our international reputation is ruined, and Osama bin Laden is still at large, the Taliban still controls parts of Afghanistan, and terrorist groups are still recruiting new members. Even those who believe these wars were justified can’t seriously argue that we had a brilliant strategy for executing them.
A major part of our “brilliant” strategy was the use of harsh interrogation methods such as sleep deprivation, stress positions, slapping, confinement with insects, and water-boarding. The people who implemented this policy never expected anyone to find out, so when the story broke in 2004 that prisoners at Abu Ghraib were being tortured, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the rest of the gang reacted with shock, pointing their fingers at a few “bad apples” who had simply gone too far. Now we know for a fact that they not only knew what was going on, but they had actually devised and authorized that policy! These soldiers were doing what soldiers in every other military and C.I.A. prison were doing, which is following the recommendations handed down to them from the top. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib were scapegoated, convicted, and a few are still sitting in prison today. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld and the rest of the despicable liars who feigned shock and outrage at the soldiers who had been implementing policies they endorsed are still breathing free air. Even those who believe that torture is justified can’t seriously defend that kind of behavior. If Cheney and Rumsfeld really believe that those methods were justified they should have argued that as soon as these facts came to light, rather than let American soldiers take the fall for a policy they pushed forward.
Which brings me at last to the issue of whether this is a justifiable policy in the first place. There are more sides to this argument than it may seem, so I’ll take it one step at a time. One argument that defenders of the Bush administration continue to use is that this wasn’t torture at all. These “harsh interrogation tactics” were all fairly benign, so what are all these left-wing liberals complaining about? These terrorists are evil people who do evil things so why shouldn’t we be allowed to slap them around a little? Sleep-deprivation doesn’t cause physical pain, right? Being confined in a box with insects that won’t sting you is harmless! And water-boarding is so benign that some right-wing commentators will subject themselves to it just to prove that it’s no big deal.
And yet at the same time, these same people are the ones shouting that these tactics were absolutely necessary to prevent another terrorist attack. There are ticking time-bombs all over the place and we can’t afford to deprive our soldiers and C.I.A. operatives the ability to use whatever means necessary to get the information out of the terrorists.
It boggles my mind that they don’t notice the glaring contradiction in these two arguments! If these tactics are so benign that anyone can handle them, then how effective could they possibly be in getting terrorists to give up crucial information? How exactly is sleep-deprivation (which by definition must be done over a long period of time) supposed to prevent a ticking time-bomb from going off? A terrorist is really going to tell us everything he knows because we make him stand in an uncomfortable position for a long period of time? That’s clearly absurd.
Of all the tactics outlined in the memos, the only one that can be envisioned to work in a ticking time-bomb scenario is water-boarding. If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah had information that could prevent another imminent terrorist attack, and water-boarding was so unbearable that they gave up that information and thousands of innocent lives were thereby saved, the Bush administration might have a justification for their actions. They now want to say that information gathered from the interrogation of Mohammed led to the foiling of a terrorist plot to destroy the Liberty Tower in Los Angeles. Of course, they ignore the fact that this plot was foiled in February 2002, while these interrogation tactics were not put into practice until August 2002, a full six months later. And right now, with the release of these memos, any reasonable person who takes the time to consider the facts would understand that ticking time-bombs had nothing to do with it. These men were water-boarded 183 and 83 times respectively. How effective could water-boarding actually be if they could withstand it 3 to 6 times a day for one month? They didn’t break the first 182 times, but on the 183rd it was just too much take? And if time was such a factor, why stretch the process out? Why give them any break at all between water-boarding sessions if the country is in imminent danger?
We now know from the testimony of actual interrogators that the reason these two men were subject to such harsh treatment was not because of any imminent terrorist attack that needed foiling. Up until the water-boarding began, these prisoners had been cooperating, giving us useful information through traditional interrogation. But the administration officials wanted evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Quaeda, so they ordered the interrogators to use the illegal method of water-boarding to extract this information from them. In order to support the lies they were already telling (Cheney had said even before this that it was “beyond all doubt” that a link between them existed) to sell the American public on the idea that invading Iraq was necessary, they completely tossed our national honor out the proverbial window. Centuries of moral high ground flushed down the toilet for what? To extract a false confession from some terrorists so that we’d have a stronger case for an invasion that was supposedly already justified?
The fact is that these tactics are not effective for gaining useful intelligence. The tactics they used came from the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) manual, the military’s way of training their operatives in how to resist the illegal interrogation tactics used by Asian communists during the wars of the 50s and 60s in order to extract false confessions from American prisoners. False confessions. Deprive someone of sleep for weeks, keep them as uncomfortable as possible, demoralize them, and soon enough you’ll have a person ready to say anything you tell them to say. Certainly not provide any useful intelligence. Certainly not stop a ticking time-bomb.
Not only are these methods particularly ineffective, but the consensus among military officials is that torture in general does not work, even in a ticking time-bomb scenario. This is a quote from the U.S. military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency:
The requirement to obtain information from an uncooperative source as quickly as possible-in time to prevent, for example, an impending terrorist attack that could result in loss of life-has been forwarded as a compelling argument for the use of torture. Conceptually, proponents envision the application of torture as a means to expedite the exploitation process. In essence, physical and/or psychological duress are viewed as an alternative to the more time consuming conventional interrogation process. The error inherent in this line of thinking is the assumption that, through torture, the interrogator can extract reliable and accurate intelligence. History and a consideration of human behavior would appear to refute this assumption.
The most effective method of interrogation, as has been repeated in interviews with actual military and C.I.A. interrogators time and time again, is relationship-building and deception. Make the enemy think you’re a friend, and get him to entrust you with information he would never give to an enemy. This is the method we used with Saddam Hussein, and he gave us piles of valuable information all without a single trip to the water-board.
From the JPRA report quoted above:
As noted previously, upwards of 90 percent of interrogations have been successful through the exclusive use of a direct approach, where a degree of rapport is established with the prisoner. Once any means of duress has been purposefully applied to the prisoner, the formerly cooperative relationship can not be reestablished. In addition, the prisoner’s level of resolve to resist cooperating with the interrogator will likely be increased as a result of harsh or brutal treatment.
This is the method the military and the C.I.A. had been using for decades until the politicians in the Bush administration who had been caught off-guard by 9/11 decided that the SERE methods would be more effective. This was an idiotic, brain-dead proposition, and many in the C.I.A. and the military protested. But these idiots, the same idiots who developed our brilliantly successful “I-doubt-this-will-take-6-months”-invasion-of-Iraq strategy, were higher in the chain-of-command than the military and C.I.A. officials who actually knew what they were talking about, and eventually the hotter heads prevailed by replacing the cooler heads with officials who were willing to see things the administration’s way.
All of this is completely verifiable, publicly available knowledge. Anyone who actually wants to know the truth of the matter can go on-line to any of hundreds of websites (not all of which are run by liberals) or go to the store and buy any of hundreds of books (not all of which are written by liberals) and find this stuff out. Yet millions of people still believe that these torture methods were effective and necessary for the sake of national security. Why? Two words: the media.
The media has done to this issue the same thing they do with every issue, and turned it into a right vs. left partisan political battle royale. That’s good for ratings. You have one person on the far left shouting about peace and love, and another on the far right shouting about protecting American lives. Rarely are any facts actually brought into the debate. You’ll hear each side insist that “the facts clearly indicate that my side is correct” but they don’t mention any facts. Occasionally they’ll toss out a fact such as the foiling of the Liberty Tower plot, but not give the opposition the opportunity to counter that with the fact that the information gathered about this attack was obtained through traditional interrogation tactics. Segments on these cable-news shows only last about 6 minutes, and it’s much more entertaining to fill those 6 minutes with a shouting match than with a thorough examination of the facts.
This is not a matter of right and left, but of right and wrong. Torture is wrong. It’s a very simple statement, one that I think Jesus Christ would have probably agreed with. And I think most republicans would have agreed with it before it became clear that the Bush administration used torture. Then all of a sudden it became a political issue and they had to take the side of their party. Would they have been so eager to justify torture if the policy had come from a democratic administration? Rather than see it for what it is—an assault on morality—they took it as an assault on their party, and rushed to find a justification, so they came up with this ticking time-bomb argument that makes sense on the most basic level but simply does not jive with the facts. If you really want to stop a ticking time-bomb, stress-positions and water-boarding is not going to do it. Maybe pulling fingernails, drilling teeth with no anesthetic, or electric shocks to the testicles would do the trick, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about techniques with only one known utility: to extract false confessions. If we want to have a debate about whether we should be allowed to pull fingernails in order to stop a nuclear weapon from going off on U.S. soil, let’s have that debate, but let’s not pretend that the techniques made policy by the Bush administration actually kept us safe.
The facts—the irrefutable facts—indicate that the effect was quite the opposite. Americans may have no qualms about stripping terrorists naked and pissing on their sacred texts, slapping them around and making them as uncomfortable as possible, but the rest of the world looks at this and does take issue. Not only does it strain our relations with our allies—I can tell you from personal experience that Europeans no longer see us as an honorable nation—but it provides the best possible recruitment material for terrorist and insurgent groups looking for more people to kill American soldiers. An Arab teenager who might not have otherwise had reason to believe that America is evil watches the news and sees what’s being done to his people, and that’s all the convincing he needs. Just ask Matthew Alexander, a military interrogator in Iraq who recently wrote a book on the subject called How to Break a Terrorist, and he’ll tell you that most—yes, most—of the insurgents he captured had been targeting American soldiers because they were outraged about what had been going on at Abu Ghraib. There can be no question that American soldiers have been killed as a direct result of these policies of torture.
So what is there left to defend? Most people would agree that torture is wrong, but some would say the ends justify the means. But these means produced no positive ends. We gained no useful intelligence from the hundreds of water-boarding sessions with Mohammed and Zubaydah, we prevented no ticking time-bombs from going off (despite what they’d like us to believe about the Liberty Tower), and as a result of these policies more of our soldiers were killed than would have otherwise been killed. Their blood is on the hands of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and everyone else responsible for implementing this immoral, wrong-headed, and completely counter-productive policy. And none of this is to mention the fact that these methods were being used at nearly every C.I.A. and military prison, and because it’s statistically impossible that every one of the thousands of people who passed through these prisons were guilty of something, it is undeniable that we caused needless suffering to completely innocent people. Even if only one innocent person was treated in this cruel and barbaric manner, that’s one person too many.
The plain truth is that no good whatsoever came from our use of torture. No good whatsoever.
But finally I must turn to the final argument put up by the defenders of torture, to ignore the countless interviews and reports that clearly indicate the ineffectiveness of torture, and ask the question: what if it did work? What if these top-secret memos that Cheney is asking the C.I.A. to release actually exist, and it turns out that Zubaydah actually did reveal information throughout his weeks of water-boarding that led to the foiling of a terrorist plot that we don’t yet know about (one that would have happened after August 2002, unlike the other foiled plots consistently cited by torture-defenders). Then you might have an argument against convicting the people who carried this policy out.
Notice I say that you have an argument against convicting them, but you still have no reason not to prosecute them. Because in a nation governed by the rule of law, we prosecute people who break the law, regardless of the circumstances. It can’t be denied that water-boarding is illegal. We’ve prosecuted Japanese for doing it to our soldiers—we even had some of them executed. We even court-martialed our own soldiers during the Spanish-American war for water-boarding Filipinos. So if you want to defend water-boarding you have to defend the proposition that breaking the law is acceptable as long as it keeps people safe.
If I had a family that was being threatened by a psychopath, and the only way I could protect my family was to kill this man, the police would still arrest me and put me on trial, as they should. But as long as I was given a fair trail, I doubt any jury would convict me. I’d be given the opportunity to make the case to them that I did what I had to do, and that if I hadn’t done it my family might have been killed. Defense of others is a legitimate legal defense, but one that must be proven in a court of law.
Saying that we should not prosecute those who broke the law by water-boarding because water-boarding works is like saying we should not prosecute for murder—that we should not even put people on trial for murder—because in some cases murder works. But “the ends justify the means” is not always a legitimate defense. If a father suspects his son of taking dangerous drugs but his son won’t admit to having any, is the father therefore justified in torturing his son until he confesses? He could say, “Perhaps it was a harsh method, but I got my son to give up the location of the drugs. My actions kept him safe, so I shouldn’t be punished.” We would dismiss this as a ludicrous argument and throw the father in jail for abuse. Sometimes the ends do justify the means, but often they do not. The question we as a nation have to ask is whether the ends of keeping us safer from terrorists are worth the means of violating the law, inflicting massive amounts of suffering, sacrificing our moral standing in the world, and fanning the flames of hatred towards us throughout the Muslim world, thus putting our soldiers at greater risk of attack.
Roughly one thousand Americans lost their lives in the terrorist attack of September 11. Every two days, as many Americans die of cancer. More American soldiers have died in Iraq than civilians who died on 9/11. The estimate for your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are roughly 1 in 9.3 million, about the same as your chances of winning the lottery. If you live in a rural area, you’re far more likely to die from being struck by lightning or being hit on the head with a meteor than from being killed by terrorists. The previous administration deliberately hyper-inflated the perceived threat of terrorism in order to achieve their own political ends. The president was given the powers of a medieval British monarch, who could toss anyone in prison indefinitely without ever charging them with a crime. There’s certainly nothing original about encouraging fear in the populace in order to gain more power. Kim Jong Il does it. Hitler and Stalin did it. Every totalitarian despot in history has done it.
Yet Cheney insists that the terrorist threat is so great that implementing these policies was completely justified. And even if his highly dubious assertion that these policies were successful is true (keep his “beyond all doubt” statement in mind when considering his credibility), he may have saved a few dozen, maybe even a few hundred American lives on U.S. soil. But a few dozen, maybe even a few hundred American soldiers abroad have paid the price for this, and in addition the moral authority we’ve been able to claim internationally since the time of George Washington has completely evaporated.
This is a country founded on solid moral principles, and to give up those principles for the sake of extra security is indefensible. It would be as though we stood up collectively as a nation and said, “Please, Mr. Cheney, do whatever you have to do, just keep me and my family safe! I don’t care how many innocent Arabs have to be rounded up and tortured, just as long as you get a few guilty ones.” This is a cowardly and dishonorable position to take.
The reason we are so proud of our soldiers is because they are willing to risk life and limb to defend the principles this country is based on. Even if torture did work (and it’s all but certain that the particular tactics we implemented did not), even if it reduced the risk of my being killed by a terrorist from 1 in 9.3 million to 1 in 14.7 million, if the choice were mine I would proudly increase the risk of another terrorist attack to preserve and protect the principles of my country. How am I supposed to be proud of my country if we’re willing to sink to such base and repugnant behavior out of fear? How can I be proud of a country where the leaders can behave like totalitarian despots and not be held accountable for it? I think deep down, most Americans feel the same way, and that most of us would be willing to accept a slightly greater risk of terrorist attack for the sake of our national principles. We are not a nation of cowards, and it is an insult for the Bush administration to have treated us as though we were.
This should not be a political issue. This is a question of right and wrong, and regardless of whether they fall on the left or the right side of the ideological spectrum, everyone in this country should be able to agree that what the Bush administration did by implementing these policies—destroying our national honor, knowingly breaking the law, and infuriating our enemies thus further endangering our soldiers—is completely and undeniably wrong.