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Issue Date:  April 7, 2006

By Kenneth Roth, Minky Worden and Amy Bernstein
The New Press, 218 pages, $25.95
By Alfred W. McCoy
Metropolitan Books, 290 pages, $25
By John Perry
Orbis Books, 192 pages, $15
Torture around the world

Governments are often more reluctant to discuss torture than to practice it


“Once the leading governmental defender of human rights around the world, the U.S. government has now become the most influential abuser.” -- Kenneth Roth

“I’m not going to address the ‘torture’ word,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said during a news conference in May 2004. Earlier, in response to disclosures about the events at Abu Ghraib, he insisted that “what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture.”

Secretary Rumsfeld’s remarks demonstrated how governments are often more reluctant to discuss torture than to practice it. But in light of the controversy over U.S. treatment of captives in the war on terror, and abuse of prisoners in countries around the world, several new books remind us of the need to consider what constitutes torture, whether it is ever justified, and what alternatives there are in dealing with dangerous movements that threaten innocent people.

Torture, an anthology compiled by Human Rights Watch, contains 16 essays on topics that include the history of the practice, how it’s used in various countries, and moral arguments for and against it. People who think it’s exclusively directed at suspected terrorists or political dissidents may be shocked to learn that in Egypt, torture is used on men suspected of homosexual behavior and on street children. And while Israeli human rights activist Eitan Felner says the 1987 report of the Landau Commission made his country the only one at the end of the 20th century “officially to sanction the intentional infliction of pain and suffering during interrogation,” Human Rights Watch’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, says Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’s statement during his confirmation hearings last year made the U.S. government the only one “to publicly claim as a matter of policy the power to use cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”

In A Question of Torture, University of Wisconsin history professor Alfred W. McCoy documents the CIA’s use of abusive interrogation techniques during the past 50 years. He notes that when these practices were made public during the Vietnam War and after, the issue died down following an initial flurry. The current debate, Professor McCoy says, is more far-reaching and gives the United States an opportunity to either join the international community in repudiating torture or continue its practice clandestinely in the hope of gaining useful information without negative publicity.

Professor McCoy also challenges the pragmatic argument, noting that FBI interrogators have apparently been more successful than the CIA in gaining useful information from captives without resorting to torture. And purely from a cost-benefit analysis, he notes that 30 months after the events of 9/11, U.S. authorities had arrested 5,000 terror suspects, found evidence to charge only three, and obtained only one conviction. This, he says, raises the possibility of torturing 4,999 victims for every true terrorist interrogated.

In a 1982 essay titled “The Case for Torture,” philosopher Michael Levin wrote, “Someday soon a terrorist will threaten tens of thousands of lives, and torture will be the only way to save them.” More recently, this “ticking time bomb” scenario has been used by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to propose the use of warrants to regulate the use of torture. However, Professor McCoy says this hypothesis rests on an unlikely group of variables, including the certainty of having captured a terrorist, the time left before the planned attack, and the terrorist’s detailed knowledge of the specifics of the plan, which can be used to thwart it. “Such an extraordinary string of coincidences probably never has and never will occur,” he writes.

Jesuit Fr. John Perry, professor of ethics at the University of Manitoba, Canada, offers theological and philosophical perspectives on the issue in Torture: Religious Ethics and National Security. While declaring that torture is “horribly evil,” he distinguishes the practice from the practitioner. The torturer is “deeply involved in an evil system,” Fr. Perry says, but “may not be an evil person.”

The church has a checkered history of being on both sides of the issue of torture. Its condemnation by Pope Nicholas I in 866 was “for the first time in Western culture a clear formulation of the idea that torture should be suppressed,” Fr. Perry writes. However, he notes, the practice was subsequently justified by three popes in the 13th century.

In the late 20th century, a Brazilian torturer justified the practice by saying, “Brazil is a Catholic country. In Brazil they are used to this kind of behavior -- like torture, for example -- because Catholic churches tortured people for years and years, centuries and centuries.” In contrast, in 2000 Pope John Paul II led a “Confession of Sins Committed in the Service of the Church.” And it was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who was given the task at that time of confessing “the use of force in the service of truth.”

These books are not pleasant fare, particularly when they force the reader to confront such statements as the charge by Mr. Roth of Human Rights Watch that “once the leading governmental defender of human rights around the world, the U.S. government has now become the most influential abuser.” However, there is also hope. Fr. Perry writes that “with the sincerity and humility of a reformed sinner, the church has positioned itself today to be a strong advocate for human rights and to warn those involved in the state-sanctioned use of torture” about its consequences. “To ask someone to degrade and deface the image of God in a man or woman,” he says, “is to exact a double violation of both the tortured and the torturer.”

Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006

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