Let me begin by declaring two biases: first, I am a pacifist, and second, my perspective on this issue is influenced by my personal experience of being born in a POW camp as a prisoner of the Japanese in WWII, a camp in which my family was interred for almost 4 years.
We should be shocked by the grotesque details of the 6,000 page U.S. Senate detailed report on how the CIA tortured prisoners and subsequently lied about it.
Some of the mainstream media echoed that shock. The Washington Post editorial stated: “This is not how Americans should behave. Ever.” Vox Editor-In-Chief Ezra Klein said, “We betrayed our values. We betrayed who were are.” And President Obama was quoted in many publications as having said, “This is not who we are. This is not how we operate.”
Part of the problem exposed by the CIA report was the lying and deception of officials about the torture program. George Tenet, former CIA Director, interviewed by CBS’s Scott Pelley in 2007 stated repeatedly and falsely, “we don’t torture people.” And former Vice-President Dick Cheney once stated in an interview in 2006, “We don’t do torture.”
The CIA report described numerous detailed incidents of torture of detainees, including:
- Rectal feeding
- Blinding detainees
- Forcing detainees to stand for hours on broken feet
- Extensive and repeated waterboarding
- Being constantly shackled with arms over their heads
- Extensive periods in isolation with continual loud noise and only a bucket for human waste
- Being slapped and punched, then dragged down a long corridor
- Sleep deprivation
- Forced nudity
- Mock executionsThreats to sexually abuse the detainee’s mothers or harm their children
As for the effectiveness of the torture program, the CIA report indicated the detainees were tortured before they were asked to cooperate. The report concluded that torture did not provide any useful information about terrorists. This conclusion has been supported by neuroscience research. Shane O’Mara, writing in the Trends in Cognitive Science, concludes “Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced interrogation.’”
Not only is torture illegal under U.S. law, the U.N. Convention Against Torture which the U.S. signed in 1994 states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war, or threat of war, internal instability, or any other public emergency, may be involved as a justification for torture.” The Convention defines torture as “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.”
One of the dangerous moral morasses that leaders and the public often fall into is the utilitarian concept of “the ends justifies the means,” or justification theory. With this belief comes the assertion that a “good” end is justified by any means necessary, however bad it be.
That belief has been interpreted many times in history. The Romans enslaved populations in order to bring “order” to the world; the Crusades forced people to accept Christianity in order to “save them;” Western nations preemptively started war in order to avert war; and innocent civilians have been killed and seen as “collateral damage” in bombings in order to kill the “bad guys.”
It becomes a dangerous moral slope when we embrace the “ends justifies the means.” Where are the limitations to the ends? Who defines them? And what of the torturers? What happens to their sense of right and wrong? What happens to their mental and emotional states? Joe Navarro, one of the F.B.I’s top experts in interrogation told The New Yorker, “only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected.”
CIA officers and those responsible for the torture have not been charged with a crime or faced disciplinary action as of the date of this article. If the U.S. does not take action to bring to justice those officials who broke the law, it has lost its perceived right to boast of being a “shining light” of democracy and freedom to the rest of the world. The world wants and expects a higher standard from the U.S.
And if torture is practiced and condoned by the U.S. or other Western nations, what effect might it have on those countries which may have been more willing to participate in torture? Finally, if torture is condoned and those responsible for it don’t face consequences, is there a danger that those techniques and justifications for them could spread to police forces?
Serious questions requiring some serious answers.