Tortured logic

The U.S. has been lumped with countries suspected of torture, yet Bush proclaims we do not torture.

So, we torture people.

We’ve reached new heights of absurdity over the last few years. There are plenty of issues to debate in this country, but there’s one thing we should all be able to say with confidence: that torture is wrong, and we don’t do it. The fact that we have lost the ability to say even that will stand as the most depressing national memory of the Bush administration (and that is saying something). Even worse, we have not, yet, reached the point where that torture is “just” a memory.

Waterboarding – controlled drowning – has become the symbol of our new doctrine of torture, so it’s worth the time to consider the meaning of the term. We tie the prisoner down, cover their face with some kind of cloth or bag, and pour water over their head. Some have referred to waterboarding as “simulated drowning,” which The Washington Post points out is incorrect: Evan Wallach, a former JAG in the Nevada National Guard, calls waterboarding “real drowning that simulates death.” After World War II, we tried and convicted Japanese officers of war crimes for employing the technique against Americans. A few weeks ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed the obvious – waterboarding is torture. Our attorney general and director of national intelligence have both called waterboarding torture.

Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, recently admitted before a congressional committee that we did, in fact, waterboard three prisoners. He tried to reassure the committee, saying that we hadn’t used the technique in the last five years. Funny how three years ago we listened to our president assure everyone that “we do not torture.” Perhaps he missed that memo too.

The line in the sand between torture and no torture is not easy to jump back across once we end up on the wrong side. We’ve become a nation that tortures. About a month ago, a PowerPoint presentation used to train Canadian diplomats leaked to the press. In that PowerPoint were listed six countries suspected of torturing prisoners: Syria, Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, China and the United States. Some company we keep. We made that list specifically because of a little incident where we arrested a Canadian citizen, sent him to Syria based on bad intelligence, and he was tortured. (The Canadian government eventually awarded him an $11.5 million settlement). There have long been rumblings about the so-called “black sites” we have used, shipping prisoners to countries with more Ö shall we say, lenient interrogation laws. It’s now clear that we are just as comfortable doing the dirty work ourselves.

We don’t have to debate the fact that torture is wrong on ethical grounds. The fact is that it’s also wrong on pragmatic grounds. Darius Rejali, author of the book “Torture and Democracy,” points out in a recent interview that torture for the sake of obtaining true information simply does not work. It’s a great way to “generate confessions for convictions,” but torture is useless when we actually want to gain intelligence. People will say anything when you torture them enough, to the point that you cannot any longer tell truth from fiction. Rejali tells the funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad story of John McCain, in his Vietnam prison, trying to explain Easter to his torturer: the North Vietnamese refused to believe McCain, because the idea of someone living twice was absurd and no one could possibly believe it.

McCain, himself, can sometimes be a maddening figure on the subject of torture. He has long staked out a strong and admirable anti-torture stance, and he deserves to be recognized for such. Strange, then, that just one week ago he voted against a bill designed to keep the CIA from torturing people. The bill applied anti-torture rules currently governing the military to the CIA McCain voted against this bill, saying in a statement that it was important to allow the CIA to use “alternative interrogation techniques.” He states that the military and the CIA should be allowed to use different methods when interrogating prisoners. Unfortunately, torture is not relative. If it’s wrong for the military, it’s wrong for everyone. Sensory deprivation is no less excruciating when the guy in charge is from the CIA (Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supported the bill but did not vote).

It’s worth remembering Abu Ghraib during times like these. Now that a few years have passed, we seem to have moved on, as we tend to do, by expressing outrage then getting over it all too quickly. Writing about the prison scandal, Susan Sontag reminds us that “the issue is not whether a majority or minority of Americans but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely.” To that, we should add: our tendency to turn a blind eye makes us just as liable.

We’ve seen the rise of euphemisms like “enhanced interrogations” over the last few years, as if, somehow, it will all be OK as long as we don’t mention the “T-word.” Ludicrous.

There are many forms of torture – waterboarding has just become the most egregious and public example. Last August, a group called Physicians for Human Rights released a report on our “enhanced interrogation” that concluded many of our techniques – like exposure to extreme temperatures, the use of stress positions and many others – tread far enough into a legal gray area that they should not be used. Indeed, some CIA officers feared that they would face prosecution for using such harsh methods. The Justice Department responded by issuing a series of memos asserting the legality of the torture. Today, Attorney General Michael Mukasey is using those same memos to justify his decision not to investigate the torture. We’ve created a system where, as long as the government says so, torture is legal. Two weeks ago, the White House was still arguing that waterboarding may be used on a case-by-case basis. A spokesman said that “every enhanced technique that has been used by the CIA Ö was brought to the Department of Justice and they made a determination that its use Ö was lawful.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human rights stated two weeks ago that violators of torture laws should be prosecuted under “universal jurisdiction.” If the U.N. actually enforced those laws, we would be in big trouble.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]