On torture

Torture is bad, and we should not do it. But what should we do about it now?

Consider this the anti-opinions piece. A column like this should take a definitive stance on the issue, argue it through, come to a grand conclusion âÄî you know, present an opinion. But here youâÄôre not going to find anything like that. We tortured people. This isnâÄôt really news âÄî weâÄôve known about the waterboarding of various detainees in 2002 and onward for a while now. But with the recent declassification of a slew of government memos, all kinds of new bits of information have come to light, like, for example, that we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (aka KSM, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks) a staggering 183 times in one month. WeâÄôve learned about other fun techniques, like cramming people into boxes with insects or slamming them up against walls. All of this is very, very bad. Torture is illegal âÄî it breaks both U.S. and international law. Waterboarding, and a bunch of other techniques we used in the post-9/11 years, is torture. Sen John McCain, to his credit, has been quite outspoken on this point over the past few days, calling the recent news on the extent of KSMâÄôs torture âÄúunacceptableâÄù and saying âÄúonce is too much. Waterboarding is torture, period. People broke laws. If laws matter at all, those people should be prosecuted and, if found guilty, convicted. These are facts. But now things are getting really tricky. When faced with the prospect of prosecuting people for the U.S.âÄôs use of illegal torture (and, remember, there is no other kind of torture), the Obama administration has been rather wishy-washy. First, the president said there would be no prosecution. Then he walked that back a bit, reopening the door for possible prosecution of those who authorized or wrote legal opinions allowing the torture to happen. President Barack Obama has tried to focus on âÄúmoving forward,âÄù but it isnâÄôt that easy. Not all offenses are created equal, and torture is way up at the top of the list of âÄúthings we do not do under any circumstances.âÄù And even with a new administration in power, not everyone involved in the torture is gone: Jay Bybee, a key Bush legal adviser, is currently serving a lifetime appointment to the federal Court of Appeals. Jonathan Fredman, who helped bring waterboarding to Guantanamo Bay, still works for the CIA. And the stench of torture still lingers over everything we do internationally âÄî people havenâÄôt forgotten Abu Ghraib. Obviously, the interrogators themselves should not be held accountable for the torture. They rely on their superiors for guidance as to what is and is not acceptable procedure. Any prosecution would focus on, at least, the lawyers who wrote the legal opinions authorizing torture techniques, and we would probably have to look higher up the chain than even that. Plenty of people are making the argument now that context matters: 9/11 was horrifying, and the instinctual reaction in the aftermath is to do whatever necessary to stop it from happening again. And from there, the argument quickly gets sidetracked into a debate about the efficacy of torture âÄî whether it produces useful intelligence. (The answer, for what itâÄôs worth, is probably âÄúno.âÄù) A former FBI agent wrote in The New York Times that Abu Zubaydah, one of the first terrorists we tortured, was giving us useful information (including giving up KSM) before we started torturing him. But arguments about whether torture works sidestep the most important point: Torture is an evil thing, and we should not do it. The easiest way to win a war is to nuke your opponent back to the Stone Age, but that doesnâÄôt make it right. Then again âÄî and itâÄôs worth repeating âÄî things got so screwy after 9/11 that most peopleâÄôs moral compasses were completely disabled. (Raise your hand if you ever muttered something about turning Afghanistan into âÄúa glass parking lot.âÄù ThatâÄôs what I thought.) Making bad decisions under pressure, though, is still making bad decisions. It doesnâÄôt excuse the evil. Perhaps it makes the evil more understandable, but it doesnâÄôt make it un-evil. And there is some soul-crushing evidence that suggests those authorizing the torture didnâÄôt have the purest of intentions. IâÄôm just going to quote this lede from a McClatchy news article: âÄúThe Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al-Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.âÄù Uh oh. The anonymous intelligence official in question points to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, saying the former vice president and defense secretary were looking for justification for the Iraq war. This is very, very bad âÄî it makes it pretty hard to argue simply that those in charge were trying to keep us safe. Fishing for a specific piece of information you wish was true (but isnâÄôt) makes torture even more repugnant. If the prosecutions move ahead âÄî against Bybee and his crew, or against someone higher up âÄî weâÄôre going to be getting a circus. ItâÄôs not by accident that this column is appearing under the kicker âÄúpolitics.âÄù There will be no way to remove political issues from the prosecutions. At that point, it starts to seem like the new administration is coming in and throwing the old guys in jail âÄî not a savory thought. But this is not simply a policy disagreement âÄî to frame it as such glosses over far too much. WeâÄôre not just disagreeing about, say, tax rates here. The issue of torture, and what we do about it after the fact, gets to the heart of who we are as a country. So, I apologize for the previous thousand words of hand-wringing. This is some nasty stuff weâÄôre dealing with. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]