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Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

Torture, and who we say we are

What better evidence do we need than our current debate over torture to demonstrate the disjuncture between our view of ourselves as a moral nation and the face we present to others.

Language and images we long associated with the hidden viciousness of brutal regimes are now the fare of nighttime television and daytime talk shows. During this season of peace, in what many would like to characterize as a Christian nation, we have been jolted anew by persistent revelations that the United States has engaged in torture.

The latest round of contention was prompted by John C. Kiriakou, a former CIA operative who reported witnessing the torture technique called “waterboarding,” which simulates drowning, used on an al-Qaeda operative.

Unfortunately, the discussion is episodic and driven by the latest headlines: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, extraordinary rendition, a memo from an attorney general describing the Geneva Conventions as quaint, a vice president advocating “enhanced interrogation techniques.” As a result, the focus gets stuck on narrowly framed issues and rarely takes in a longer line of history: Exactly what did the memo say? Did waterboarding result in good information? Does Cheney really advocate torture?

If these sorry exchanges produce one potential good, it is to show the world that we remain open and democratic enough to honestly expose our misdeeds and demand accountability.

Much has been made in recent days of the claim that the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah “produced results,” information that Kiriakou claims saved thousands of lives. Kiriakou seems to embody an all-too-common ambivalence toward our use of torture techniques. While calling the Zubaydah incident a “success,” Kiriakou also believes waterboarding and other torture methods should not be used because “Americans are better than that.”

No one, of course, can be certain such techniques produce success. We can never really measure the relationship between information gained, or some successful result, and the means used to gain it. Could we say, for instance, that annihilating hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was morally justified because it saved many other lives?

Respected intellects on both sides of the ethical considerations have lodged compelling arguments. What is indisputable is that such actions diminish our access to the moral high ground. Who are we to argue against possession of nuclear weapons when we say they have worked well for us in a given historical moment? What do such actions do for our credibility when we say we do not target noncombatants? It’s an overworked sentiment, perhaps, but the exigencies of war don’t bend to the morals of the sanctuary or the ethics of civil society.

Such is the case made by the Bush administration in pursuing “enhanced interrogation techniques,” labeled more accurately by the rest of the world as “torture.” One need not buy the administration’s fear-mongering to know that the terrorism threat is real. But is torture a necessary component of the battle?

The trouble comes, first, in the inherent contradiction between a president who insistently says, “The United States does not torture,” and episodes demonstrating that our agents do. It was the case in Abu Ghraib. It is the case at Guantánamo, where testimony shows that techniques the world knows as torture have been used. And there is the further scandal of “extraordinary rendition” -- sending detainees secretly to Third-World countries where torture almost certainly occurs.

Even our national debate over torture, necessary as it might be, is risky because it numbs us to the horror the word once evoked. Our national attitude, one could argue, is in the midst of a dramatic shift.

It is important to recall that torture and worse have been part of our clandestine modus operandi before. In 1996, the Department of Defense released U.S. Army intelligence manuals used from 1982 to 1991 at the Army’s then-School of the Americas. The manuals included language that advocated assassination, torture with “mechanical methods,” false arrests and other human rights abuses.

The following year, declassified CIA documents on the U.S. overthrow of the Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán government in Guatemala in 1954 included instructions on how to assassinate people attending a meeting in a conference room. Arbenz abruptly resigned, presumably making such tactics unnecessary.

The good and bad news today is that those practices have come out of the closet. From the highest reaches of government and from our top judicial officers we hear justification for human rights abuses and abrogation by fiat of long-standing international agreements.

This is a dangerous time. Torture is immoral. Usually, say the experts, it doesn’t produce reliable information. Worse, it transforms us as a culture into those we say we disdain. Engaging in torture or instructing others in its use has only generated greater hatred of our nation. We can be certain that any short-lived gain from its use today will have a steep downside in deepening the anger and enmity of those who will inevitably, and correctly, view us as global hypocrites.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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