Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Torture: Never, EVER Justified and Not Who We Are as a Nation

Torture (noun) 1. the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.                --Random House Dictionary

Last week the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released to the press, the public and the world, a report describing our nation’s use of torture in the war on terror.  The 6,000 page tome describes in excruciating, often stomach turning detail, how American citizens, working on behalf of and with the blessing of the American government, used torture in an effort to gain intelligence from terror suspects. 

The methods were gruesome: water boarding (detainees subjected to near drowning), sleep deprivation, ice water baths, threatening the lives of prisoners and their families, forced feeding, mock executions, and the shackling of prisoners in subhuman conditions. The torture happened in so-called “black prisons”, top secret Central Intelligence Agency run facilities in places like Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Afghanistan.  One hundred and nineteen detainees were held under the program.  Twenty-six of those detainees were later found to be wrongly accused.

The reports’ release set off a firestorm of response. Current and former CIA employees and many in Congress claim these so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved Americans lives, even though the report denies that assertion. Some who supported the release of the report (including President Obama) hedged their bets to cover themselves politically, saying that although the torture was wrong, those who undertook it did so with patriotic motives.

As an American, I’m not sure who disappoints and angers me more: those who tortured and must have done so knowing that what they did was just wrong, immoral, and inhuman. Or those who excuse torture as “understandable” in the extraordinary time called post 9/11.  They argue that because America was fighting an enemy unlike any other foe before, because America was attacked on its own soil, because the safety of Americans took precedent over any other ideal, well…things were just done that were “necessary”. 

Thank God that in the midst of this nationwide debate, one person stood up and spoke the truth with courage and moral conviction: Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.  Himself the victim of torture as a prisoner of war for six year in Vietnam, it is McCain, more than any self serving politician or blowhard pundit, who has the right to speak about torture. Why in the final analysis torture almost never elicits good intelligence, nor does it make for a safer world. And most important, why torture is not what America does.  Torture is not who America is.

On the floor of the Senate, McCain declared: “I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.  We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily."

It amazes and frightens me what America has been willing to do to “defend” itself since the dark days right after the September 11th attacks. The suspension of many basic civil liberties. Eavesdropping by the government on billions of phone calls and emails and all manner of communication.  Secret courts.  And torture.

Though I was not personally touched by 9/11, I vividly remember how scared all of us were then; how we wondered when the next attack was coming; how just for a little while it felt like we came together as a nation and community. But the problem with fear is that it often makes folks and countries do things that they could never imagine. Act in ways that contradict the most idealistic and basic of political principles. 

Like that America just does not torture those it fights against.  That instead America treats even its enemies, with dignity and humanity, and always under the rule of international and domestic law, and in the sunlight of public knowledge and authority.

I still believe, like McCain, that this American commitment to being humane, to practicing higher ideals than much of the rest of the world: this is what sets the United States apart as a nation. We may not always live up to our self professed and historic values, but try we must. And when we fall short, how wonderful it is that some among us insist that we admit our mistakes to the citizenry and the whole world. 

Torture. Never justifiable. Not what we do. Not who we are. America has to be better than that. So Senator McCain: thanks for reminding us of this truth.

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