Friday, May 15, 2009


The Torture Hearings

There seems no more depressing subject, and yet it’s a discussion that has to happen, an investigation that has to be done. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is dipping its toes into those waters this week, as a subcommittee convenes hearings on the recently declassified memos:

On Wednesday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold its first hearing into torture since the Obama administration declassified memos authorizing harsh interrogations.

In the weeks since those memos became public, researchers have compared the documents with testimony from previous hearings on torture. They have looked for contradictions between what government officials claimed when the program was classified and what we know now that the program is public. The project’s leader, Karen Greenberg, has concluded that “we’ve been spun every which way.”

The hearings are being held by the subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts (not, I should note, by the subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security), chaired by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Senator Whitehouse started right off by accusing the Bush administration, saying that “senior Bush officials had repeatedly lied about the interrogation program in ‘an avalanche of falsehood.’ ”

There’s really little doubt about that, though those supporting the “harsh interrogations”[1] wouldn’t call them “lies”, and consider it all justified on the basis of its significance to national security:

[Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC)] suggested that techniques like waterboarding, which President Obama and others in his administration have condemned as torture, had produced valuable intelligence that protected American lives.

“One of the reasons these techniques have been used for about 500 years is that they work,” Mr. Graham said.

Now, whether “they work” or not is a matter of some debate. It’s clear that any interrogation will get a mixture of useful and useless information, and the question there is whether torture increases the proportion of the useful stuff, and whether the interrogators are able to distinguish the one from the other in any useful way. And in this debate, those most insistent that it works are the administration officials and those supporting them from the outside. Most former interrogators sit on the other side — they say it doesn’t work.

But whether torture works or not is somewhat beside the point. The real key here is that we don’t do these things. It’s not the “American way.” The bad guys torture prisoners for information; we’re better than that.

Or, we used to be.

To say that we should eschew torture because it’s ineffective implies that we should torture with relish if we know it works. It’s like saying that the reason not to cheat or steal is that you might get caught. We certainly hope that the threat of being caught is a deterrent, yes. But we teach our children not to cheat and not to steal... because it’s wrong to do these things. It’s not our way. And we don’t change that by considering whom we might steal from: it’s wrong to steal from thieves, just as it’s wrong to steal from the nice family next door.

To live in a civilized society, we have to hold to certain ethical behaviour. Torture is unethical and immoral, whether it “works” or not.

Lying to Congress and abusing executive power are also wrong, also unethical... and are illegal, as well. As the Senate looks at the evidence, they’ll see criminal acts, which should be prosecuted. And they’ll see that the administration, at every level, supported a program of torture.

The Bush administration put us in a War on Terror. They ordered the torture of suspected terrorists. Torture is a war crime.

That part is simple. Now, what are we going to do about it?

[1] Is that a great euphemism, or what?


The Ridger, FCD said...

Precisely. "They do it" is only a reason to do it, too, if you want to be like them. People say we can "save Western Civilization" with torture. I say what we "save" won't be worth saving - it will indistinguishable from those we're "saving" it from. Like those who say the terrorists "hate us for our freedoms" and then assiduously stamp those freedoms out, torture apologists are interested only in what Sara Vowell was describing when she said: "Whenever I hear the president mention, oh, every 12 minutes, that his greatest responsibility is "to protect the American people," the insufferable civics robot inside my head mutters: "Actually, sir, your oath, the one with the Bible and the chief justice and the Jumbotron, is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. For the American people are not mere flesh whose greatest hope is to keep our personal greasy molecules intact; we, sir, are a body politic -- with ideals." "

Burr Deming said...

If you follow his reasoning, Senator Graham's logic depends on folks being guilty of witchcraft.