Very often these days, I am struck by the absurdity of our political situation: people of goodwill find themselves debating questions that in a less anxious and more humane moment would be no-brainers. Take Senator John McCain’s Anti-Torture Amendment to the defense appropriations bill. It would outlaw torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody, establishing uniform standards for interrogations. It was adopted by the Senate by a huge majority (90 to 9) on October 5th. No brainer, right?
Evidently not. Vice President Cheney has been negotiating hard for exemptions for the CIA and other intelligence services and the President has threatened to veto the bill if the amendment is included. If Cheney’s exemptions were to stand, this would be the first time in U.S. history the government has voted to officially sanction torture. Indeed, according to Amnesty International, it would be the first time any government officially condoned torture in legislation. The McCain amendment must survive a House-Senate conference in coming weeks to become law.
People are lobbying hard now for public support to counter any behind-the-scenes pressure on Senators and Representatives from the administration. For thorough background information, including the text of the amendment, I recommend the Web site of the American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy arm of a mildly liberal think-tank.
Torture is already against the U.S. Constitution (“cruel and unusual punishment”), the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.N. Convention Against Torture (signed by the U.S. in 1994, but never ratified by our government; read it here and weep at how many provisions the U.S. is already violating). Yet this amendment is needed because representatives of the U.S. government have argued that torture is justified in the “War on Terror.” (You’ll recall that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales rode to infamy carrying this banner: “The Geneva Conventions don’t apply.”) Evidence of torture by U.S. operatives has multiplied since the Abu Ghraib revelations, with the result that a few low-ranking members of the military were made to fall on their swords in symbolic restitution while higher-ups remain free to continue such policies.
Fear of terrorism is high, rising and obviously not groundless. In such an environment, dialogue has been distorted by pressure and panic. The conviction that torture is a necessary tool of public policy goes hand-in-hand with the idea that terrorists are subhuman beasts, blindly driven to destroy us regardless of our actions and unstoppable without resort to the most extreme measures. For a reality-check, I highly recommend “Inside The Madrasas,” an article by New Delhi-based writer William Dalrymple in the recent \New York Review of Books.\ Based on his own research and a survey of others’ work, Dalrymple shows how most Islamic terrorists are highly educated in Western-style academic institutions (a higher proportion have graduated from colleges than in the American population, for instance). Counter to the notion that they are striking out of insane religious zeal in desperate resentment of American freedom, he also shows that, however cruel and destructive their actions, their motives are political, to a large extent grounded in American foreign policy.
For instance, Dalrymple quotes London suicide bomber Mohommad Sidique Khan’s videotaped testimony: “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war.” Dalrymple also quotes Bin Laden as saying if they were against freedom, they would have attacked Sweden.
The terms of debate are skewed because they are not grounded in the realities of terrorism, and therefore not based on the real nature of the threat. People like Cheney will not engage with the actual facts, so they resort to thought experiments to make their cases. Typically, we are asked something like this: If your loved ones were strapped by terrorists to a ticking time bomb and if one of the terrorists’ accomplices were to fall into your hands, would you forbear to apply the rubber hoses and electrodes to stop the explosion?
This reminds me of when I was a draft counselor in the early seventies, working with men who didn’t want to be drafted to kill Vietnamese. Those who objected to the war on moral grounds, securing exemption as conscientious objectors, were permitted to do alternative service in a state hospital or similar civilian setting instead of being drafted. Applicants abounded. Draft boards were famous for vetting them with this question: “If a man attacked your mother (sister, girlfriend…), would you fight back?” The correct answer was “No,” or exemption was denied, disregarding the lack of connection between one’s personal impulses in the heat of a moment and the national enterprise of prosecuting a war (especially a war like Vietnam or Iraq, where American soldiers are on the attacking side).
Both thought experiments are beside the point, diversions from the real question at hand. As William Shultz, the head of Amnesty International USA wrote in 2002, “How strange that though the ticking bomb scenario has been used for decades to justify torture, its defenders are unable to cite the details of even one verifiable case from real life that mirrors its conditions.
“Perhaps,” he continued, “upon reflection, that is not so strange. For what the ticking bomb case asks us to believe is that the authorities know that a bomb has been planted somewhere; know it is about to go off; know that the suspect in their custody has the information they need to stop it; know that the suspect will yield that information accurately in a matter of minutes if subjected to torture; and know that there is no other way to obtain it. The scenario asks us to believe, in other words, that the authorities have all the information that authorities dealing with a crisis never have….
“The reason torture is such a risky proposition is exactly because it is so difficult to tell ahead of time who is a terrorist and who is not; who has the information and who does not; who will give the information accurately and who will deceive; who will respond to torture and who will endure it as a religious discipline. The fact is that many people suspected of being terrorists turn out not to be,…many of those subjected to torture are genuinely ignorant of the details the authorities seek; that the information protracted with torture is notoriously unreliable; and that torture almost always takes a long time–days and weeks, not hours and minutes–to produce results….The ticking bomb scenario in its purest form is a fantasy of ‘moral’ torture all too easily appropriated by tyrants as an excuse to justify the more mundane variety.”
Torture is morally contaminating, damaging the perpetrator as well as the victim. It violates the nearly universal religious and ethical principle that we are all one, converting humans into things. Our country’s association with torture has already shamed us in the eyes of other nations, destroying our remaining credibility. Even if torture were morally acceptable, it is not demonstrably effective, producing many more false results than true ones. The fact that our highest officials are fighting hard for sanctioned torture turns my stomach. Please do what you can this week to ensure the McCain amendment passes. The following links are a few good sites to find information and take action: