Faith in Torture is Misplaced

28 April, 2009

The radical right likes torture.  They have a great deal of faith that, despite clear illegality and ineffectiveness, torture works.  I find it very difficult to stomach the idea that we, as a nation, are actually debating what torture is and whether it works.  I really cannot add a whole lot to the various discussions going on all around the blogosphere, but I can point out a couple of things.

First: officials of the United States of American have committed international crimes by both engaging in and promoting the use of torture.  The definition of torture (from the UN Convention on Torture (negotiated and signed by President Ronald Reagan (hat tip to Ed Brayton on the text))):

Article 1.

1. For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. (Bold Added by me)

Officers of the United States government, acting on orders from both elected and appointed officials, inflicted “pain or suffering” in order to gain information.  Note the bolded phrase above.  How can there be any doubt that members of the Bush administrationhave committed an international crime?

And the ObamaAdministration is also violating that same international treaty (hat tip (again) to Ed Brayton on the text):

Article 2.

1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

By not prosecuting current and former officials for torture, is the United States, and, by extension, our President, in violation of Article 2, 1? 

And yes, the Reagan administration did (even before the signing of the UN treaty) prosecute a Texas Sheriff after he waterboarded a prisoner (from Digby’s Hullabaloo):

George W. Bush’s Justice Department said subjecting a person to the near drowning of waterboarding was not a crime and didn’t even cause pain, but Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department thought otherwise, prosecuting a Texas sheriff and three deputies for using the practice to get confessions.

Federal prosecutors secured a 10-year sentence against the sheriff and four years in prison for the deputies. But that 1983 case – which would seem to be directly on point for a legal analysis on waterboarding two decades later – was never mentioned in the four Bush administration opinions released last week.

Second:  the torture committed in my name, in your name (those of you who live in the US), in the name of the United States of America, has not, by any stretch of the imagination, made America safer (from McClatchy News):

WASHINGTON — The CIA inspector general in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped the Bush administration thwart any “specific imminent attacks,” according to recently declassified Justice Department memos.

Not only that, but it now appears that, with at least one high level detainee, he had already divulged actionable information through standard (and internationally acceptable (and legal)) interrogation techniques.    He was only tortured (Zubaydah was waterboarded 183 times afterhe had been in custody for months, providing useful information) after the Bush White House got upset that there were no links between al Qaida and Iraq;  the torture was supposed to produce the ‘proof’ of a link and justify our invasion of Iraq. 

Third:  torture does not work.  Well, let me rephrase that:  torture is not an effective means fo gaining accurate information.  If one’s goal is to punish or terrorize, it works.  If one’s goal is to force a prisoner to confess to absurdities (see the Spanish Inquisition, the KGB, and Pol Pot’s regime), it works.  If one’s goal is to force a suspected witch to confess that she copulated with the devil, rode through the air on a broomstick, caused a cow to drop dead, soured a barrel of beer, and spoiled some butter, it works.  If one’s goal is to obtain actionable intelligence, it does not work. 

 I honestly feel quite queasy, no, sick to my stomach, that we are actuallydebating the effectiveness of torture, the legality of torture, whether water-boarding counts as torture, and whether torture has kept us safe.  Torture is illegal.  By the definition America agreed to, agents of the United States Government have tortured detainees.  Torture has been far less effective at gaining actionable intelligence than other, legal, forms of interrogation.  Torture has produced more terrorists and thus, by extension, has caused the death of servicemen and servicewomen. 

Last, every time America has adopted the techniques of totalitarian enemies it has, in either the near term or long term, come back to bite us.  How will we, as a nation, react if a U.S. soldier is captured and tortured?  Will the radial right understand that, when we torture, we invite others to torture us?  Or will the radical right engage in a three year hissy-fit?



  1. You know, there are similarities in the thinking between pro-torture and pro-religion. At the root there’s a fear and an anxiety over being ignorant and/or powerless. This root then forces some to make irrational choices out of frustration, then try to justify or rationalize making those choices.

  2. Well, it is a double standard. In the US, rapists & murderers go free because they can’t be talked to without a lawyer. Touching a criminal lands law-enforcement officers in court all the time, yet torturing citizens of another country is OK?

    It sounds like fundamentalist religious logic to me, as PhillyChief well puts it.

  3. Philly: I think some of it may also be that certain mindsets need simple, neat solutions. Torture seams to some to be a simple solution.

    Lorena: No, criminals in the United States go free when police officers and prosecutors do not follow the rules; rules which were put in place to ensure that, among other things, innocent people were not forced to confess to crimes through coercion or duress (or torture). Among many on the radical right, the idea that law enforcement officers (and I include the intelligence community) must also obey the law. A perfect example is Stevens up in Alaska: had the prosecutors followed the rules, they still would, most likely, have gained a conviction. Their refusal to follow the rules (obey the law) resulted in the verdict being (rightly) thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct (gee, who would have thought that Bush’s US Attorney would fuck up a case?).

    That said, I agree that it sounds like fundy logic.

  4. criminals in the United States go free when police officers and prosecutors do not follow the rules

    Isn’t that exactly the same thing I said? Make no mistake. I watch enough American television. I KNOW.

  5. Lorena: No. I don’t think it is. Police officers are allowed to ‘touch’ suspects (and all police officers are trained in tactics which allow them to arrest most suspects with minimal risk of injury to either the suspect or the officer); they are not allowed to abuse them. Rarely (and I do mean rarely), a police officer will be arrested for unlawful shooting of a suspect (all firearm discharges by police officers are fully investigated (or should be)). Even more rarely, a police officer will be held accountable for prisoner abuse (such as the two in New York City who repeatedly shoved a toilet plunger handle up the rectum of a prisoner). Law enforcement officers are held accountable for injuries sustained by suspects either during or after the arrest as to make it front page news whe it does happen. Police officers are allowed to talk to suspects; they must, however, inform them of certain rights, one of which the right to request a lawyer be present during the questioning.

    So, no, I don’t think that what you wrote and what I wrote back are the same thing.

  6. The American burgher has always had a fascination for torture, and yes, they believe in the constitution and all as a nice abstraction that should apply to people like themselves, not people in my class. There are certain segments of society which have now acquired a taste for it.

    As early as the 1970’s I heard this sort of thing being discussed as a tactic to be used “on the new battlefield”. Not loudly, not where John Q, was likely to hear (as if they gave a shit back then, anyway), but it was no secret. These sorts of things were incorperated in all kinds of training, not just SERE.

    An interesting thing I’ve noticed:

    ‘way back, from Korea and WWII on, as a kid, these things were shown me and others in school and wherever those in authority had a chance at us, to demonstrate the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
    ‘They’ did these things, proving their inferiority, ‘we’ did not, proving our moral high ground.

    In this town there are a couple of people who were captured and tortured during the Korean war (or whatever you want to call it) and through the years they were trotted out to wave their bloody shirt and remind people of “what we’re up against”, how bestial the commies were. Usually not a dry eye in the house.

    But an odd thing happened: now these same two guys are trotted out to talk about how it really isn’t so bad, they got through it, faith in Jesus and prayer was their strength, blah blah blah… So don’t waste sympathy on the the cruds in Gitmo or other places, they’re just a bunch of infidel, whining pussies who desrve it because, well, authority says so.

    So why do it if it isn’t much worse than a toe-nail clipping? Because it’s essential for our safety. (Hunh??)

    It’s the mind set. Remember the suicides at Gitmo? Tha admiral who asserted that this was an act of asymetrical warfare? Guys just in despair, seeing no other way out of a horrible situation which will continue as long as they live? Nope, it was an outrage, an attack on Old Glory.

    That’s the kind of mind that would like to see such things come to a police station near you…and given the increasingly confrontational, coercive attitude taken by ‘authority’ vis a vis’ the ‘citizen’, maybe it isn’t too far off.

  7. I’m still waiting for Sean Hannity to make good on his agreeing to be waterboarded ‘for charity’ by a SERE trainer, the money to go to veterans organizations. Keith Olbermann took him up on it and offered, legitimately, to donate $1,000 for every second Hannity endured the torture. Hannity has yet to reply. Not holding my breath (so to speak), since Hannity is a pathetic, gutless little wingnut jerkoff who could never be accused of possessing a shred of rational intelligence.

  8. Sarge: Interesting dichotomy there. Makes you wonder if these ‘traditionalists’ (conservatives) have any clue what happened yesterday, much less what happened fifty or sixty years ago.

    Ric: I see that one as a no win situation: either he breaks down into a whiney little cry-baby (not that we would (necessarily) know the difference) and claims that torture works, or he shrugs it off as no big deal, anyone can deal with it, its not torture. Either way, it will reinforce the radical right’s delusions.

  9. My truest hero is Giuseppi Garibaldi.

    He was a man of many faults and imperfections, but his virtues were remarkable for any time or place.

    He took part in a revolution in Argentina (where the “red shirts actually came from, they were actually made in red for butchers, but they were appropriated to the use of the revolutionaries)and was at one point captured and under the orders of a govorner was tortured.

    He got away, the revolution won and the man who ordered him tortured was brought before him. Rather than give in to the urge to return the ‘favor’, he actually left the room so he wouldn’t stoop as low.

    I don’t think he was morally a giant, just that what passes today for leaders in the american corporate and military sectors are simply pygmoid in the ethical/moral/human area.

  10. “How will we, as a nation, react if a U.S. soldier is captured and tortured?”

    Is this a joke…
    Do you think American captured soldiers are not tortured. I can only hope one day that we do sink to our enemy’s level, enough is enough we have to start fighting back harder then the enemy.

    I have a friend who was recently rescued from a enemy prison located in a sewer he lost his 3 of toes (he wont talk about but I’m pretty sure they just didn’t fall off) and is in PT and will probably walk with a limp for the rest of his life as well as needing a back brace and around 4 more surgeries before he can even start re-learning to walk.

    Me and my friend knew each other since kindergarten he joined the army i joined the air force. We use to climb trees to together play hide in seek in my back yard. Now when i talk to him its like talking to a stranger he has such serious head injuries he can barley keep his thoughts together forgetting something we told him just an hour ago.

    Have you learned nothing from history? French refused to fight back in WWII we all know what happened there. Poland refused to fight as well.

    The key to winning isn’t so much defeating your enemy its your ability to so demoralize humiliate and scare the enemy into not fighting back.

    Take Napoleon or Alexander they achieved some of the most peaceful and safe times in human history though the use of brute force.

    I have never read a single story of US prisoner having his toe cut off or or his back sliced open.

    So why don’t you get off your high horse and take a good look at the reality were living in today.

    Its time to bash some heads in.

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