Friday, October 05, 2007

Defining Torture Down

While the US Justice Department claimed in December 2004 to have repudiated torture and to have abandoned the most extreme interrogation methods against terrorism suspects, it issued a secret memo early the next year explicitly authorizing those same interrogation methods, claiming that they do not constitute torture, according to this New York Times story.

In July of last year, "President Bush signed a new executive order authorizing the use of what the administration calls 'enhanced' interrogation techniques — the details remain secret — and officials say the C.I.A. again is holding prisoners in 'black sites' overseas." While we do not know specifically what interrogation techniques are being used, past techniques have included "slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions; or the ultimate, waterboarding," in which a prisoner is strapped to an inclined plane with his head lower than his feet and water poured over his face to induce the feeling of drowning. While Congress has attempted to outlaw "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," by statute, the Justice department secretly issued a legal opinion which "declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard."

May I ask, if these methods do not violate that standard, what does?

Those who support these tactics seemingly think that because we are the "good guys," any methods we deem necessary are automatically acceptable. But what would make us the "good guys" except for a willingness to refrain from actions we would normally attribute to "bad guys"? What would be the outcry if these tactics were used on our own service people?

There is also the argument that "If by extreme measures we could prevent another 9/11 and save thousands of people's lives, wouldn't it be worth it?" Of course, this is begging the huge question of whether "extreme measures" actually do produce the required results, and of whether they are necessary to produce the required results--i.e., would other methods have worked equally well or better? But even accepting the premise, what then? First of all, it obliterates the line between torture and non-torture: wherever we draw that line, you could always apply the argument to just the other side of it. And it assumes that the subject actually has the information we're looking for, which can never be known for sure until the information is actually obtained. Finally, in arguments of this sort, the good to be gained is usually maximized and the methods to be used are usually minimized, as in this exchange between Scott Hennen of radio station WDAY and Vice President Cheney:

Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's a no-brainer for me....
The Vice President went on to say that "We don't torture," but again, the Administration is engaged in defining any method it feels justified in using as "not torture." At any rate, notice how waterboarding is minimized as "a dunk in water" and the outcome is maximized as "sav[ing] lives"? The fact that we have to rhetorically downplay our methods and play up our results says a lot.

I remember reading the Spire comic book adaptation of In the Presence of Mine Enemies, the story of Howard Rutledge, who was a prisoner in North Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. There was a picture of Howard Rutledge, tied to bamboo poles in a stress position, sweating, trying to outlast his interrogators. I certainly thought that that was torture at the time. Now, come to find out, it wasn't torture after all--and my government uses it too.

I really can't see how Christians can support this sort of thing. Whatever else the person in the interrogation room is, he is a human being, created in the image of God, someone God loves and someone for whom Jesus died. What will our actions do to that person? Will we convince him that our way of life is better after all? Or will we reaffirm in his mind that we are the depraved godless infidels he thought we were? What will we do with him when we are done? Because if we don't execute him or imprison him for life, then we will eventually unleash upon the world one more person aimed at hatred and revenge against the Great Satan that did the unthinkable to him. Perhaps that's what he was before we picked him up. But when we're done with him, will we have caused him to question that idea, or reaffirmed it?

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  1. Hi Keith,

    Good post. Where would you draw the line? Is there no acceptable form of coercion? Or, do we just imprison our enemies and leave it at that?


  2. I don't know where the line should be drawn. But I think a prior question would be, Is coercion the best way to get needed intelligence information? I have heard arguments to the effect that torture is a very unreliable means of obtaining information: people who actually have information are likely to clam up, while people who don't are likely to make something up in order to make the torture stop. So you're left with going overboard on one person to get what little driblets you can get, and following wild goose chases from others. I'm not sure torture works even from a pragmatic point of view.

  3. Keith,

    You are making a big assumption. I assume there is some merit to coercion becuase it has been used for millenia by many governments. Of course, this doesn't make it right. We should also not assume that it is the only tool used to gather intelligence. If used wisely, judiciously, and in concert with other intelligence gathering techniques, I'm sure it could be effective. However, we must be on guard for the "law of unintended consequences". The Geneva Convention had good reasons to establish guidelines, how does it impact our standing in the world, does it endanger our military people and others? And, then we have the big question, at least for Christians, is it compatible with the Christian faith?


  4. Fair enough, Scott, although I don't think I'm so much assuming anything as questioning the underlying assumption behind most of the arguments for coercion: namely, that it works. I'm just asking the question, not providing an answer.

    But effective or not, you are quite right: the real question is, is it compatible with American ideals on one hand, and (more importantly) with our Christian faith on the other.