What America faces today is a critical test of our self-definition. Are we a nation that tortures? Will those who break the laws against torture be punished, or will the laws themselves be ignored?
The recent release of Bush administration torture memos has spurred a surreal debate in America surrounding the tactics employed. It is surreal that there even is a debate about something that, for the entire history of the United States up until George W. Bush, was clearly illegal. This debate has given rise to some massive spin efforts by the GOP faithful.
Obviously, torture should be repugnant to any civilized person. To find a national political party defending and even valorizing the practice is extraordinary, and disheartening.
Day after day, we are treated to the same tired old Republican apologists mouthing the same old lame excuses, attempting to re-frame the debate in terms of “valuable information” received through “borderline methods” such as “aggressive questioning” and “enhanced interrogation.”
If the mere thought of what was done in our names, by agents of the United States government, weren’t enough to induce nausea (and it assuredly is), then these contemptible displays would certainly finish the job.
The good news is, this is an easily winnable debate, contrary to what you might think by watching Fox News or listening to Rush Limbaugh. Here are a few things it’s important to remember as you are assaulted by a wave of ugliness and nonsense from the Right. Think of them as tools to gain traction on the slippery surface of attempted torture justification.
Spin vs. Traction
• Spin: “It’s not clear a crime was committed.”
The Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), tasked with getting American soldiers back when they’re in the custody of hostile nations, called it “torture” back in 2002, when queried by the eager-to-torture Bush administration. (Bush went ahead with his torture plans, of course.)
As pointed out by, among many others, Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic, it is crystal clear that the law was broken. “Why? Because even if you believe that the president has the duty to torture terror suspects, under the constitution, he has no legal right to do so without Congress' passage of legislation repealing the laws and treaties governing such torture. The use of torture is part of the laws of war and only Congress has the constitutional authority…”
Amusingly, conservative icon President Ronald Reagan himself signed and championed the UN Convention on Torture. Article 1 of this document is very clear: “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...”
• Spin: “Torture works; we got valuable information.”
• Traction: Torture doesn’t work. Not only is the information thus gained notoriously unreliable; it is, in the words of the Christian Science Monitor ”… a stupid strategy that undermines the defense of democratic societies against terror.”
“This view was bolstered by the disclosure in the memos released last week of a debate within the C.I.A. about whether the brutal treatment of Abu Zubaydah, a detainee captured in Pakistan in 2002, yielded any real intelligence,” the New York Times reported on April 19. “According to the documents and former intelligence officials, the first use of waterboarding and other rough treatment against Abu Zubaydah was ordered despite the belief of interrogators that he had already told them all he knew. The harsh treatment led to no breakthroughs, according to one intelligence official with knowledge of the case.”
FBI agent Ali Soufan told Newsweek “We could have done this the right way.” Soufan, one of the agency’s top experts on Al Qaeda, yelled at one CIA contractor and told him that what he was doing was wrong, ineffective and an affront to American values. The objections Soufan raised eventually resulted an unprecedented split between the two intelligence agencies. FBI Director Bob Mueller ordered Soufan and a second FBI agent home. He then directed that bureau personnel no longer participate in CIA interrogations.
• Spin: “Releasing the torture memos hurts our national security.” (We’ve been hearing this one out of GOP mouthpieces from Dick Cheney on down.)
• Traction: Releasing the memos isn’t the problem. Performing the torture in the first place, is the problem. Performing torture hurts our national security by emboldening our adversaries worldwide to pull out all the stops when it comes to mistreating American prisoners. Chucking the Geneva Convention (articles 32 and 147 define waterboarding as torture) would mean that we are leaving our future prisoners of war with effectively no legal protection.
“The forthcoming investigations of promotion of torture are likely to do more to serve American interests than was ever aided by the inhumane cruelty prisoners suffered at the hands of U.S. forces,” says historian J. Lange Winkler. “This is because the enemies of America are not only deprived of an argument – that the U.S. is a hypocritical and cruel aggressor state – but also are embarrassed that in the U.S., as opposed to those areas ruled by the Taliban or under other despotic influences, evil deeds are exposed and justice pursued.”
• Spin: Those who want accountability for torture are driven by “an unworthy desire for vengeance.”
• Traction: Enforcing the law is not “vengeance.” When we punish a bank robber, a rapist or corporate crook, it is no more “vengeance” than when we punish someone who has broken the laws against torture. As Hilzoy put it in the Washington Monthly: “...By not investigating torture now, we would be setting ourselves up for future government lawbreaking. Isn't it obvious that preventing this matters more than anyone's motives?”
• Spin: Those who want a torture investigation are trying to “criminalize policy differences.”
• Traction: For this argument to work we have to make the huge assumption that no laws were broken. It’s becoming increasingly, and painfully, obvious that the laws against torture were, in fact broken – many times. When there is clear evidence of law-breaking – even by powerful government officials! – we investigate it in this country.
Only a serious, high-level investigation of the illegal tactics employed by the Bush administration can conclusively establish that these activities were wrong and should never be repeated. A special prosecutor must be appointed, and perhaps a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well.
Torture should be – must be – repudiated.