Sunday, January 4, 2015

Candid discourse needed on U.S. use of torture

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 4 January 2015

A Gallup Poll from summer 2013 asked Americans if the country’s moral values are getting worse. Seventy-two percent said yes (among Republicans, 87 percent; Independents, 68; Democrats, 56).

In December 2014, Pew asked Americans if the CIA’s interrogation techniques were justified. Fifty-one percent said yes. An ABC News/Washington Post poll used the hot button word “torture” (usually not a good idea in good polling practices) and received the highest positive response of the major polls asking that question, 58 percent. Over half see the future torture of suspected terrorists as justified. (Only 20 percent reject any justification for the use of torture.) Is it ironic that 87 percent of Republicans said that the country’s moral values are getting worse yet in the Pew survey, 76 percent of Republicans said that the CIA’s interrogation techniques were justified, followed by 49 percent of Independents, and 36 percent of Democrats?

Following the US/Allied defeat of the evil of Nazism/Fascism, and based on the atrocities uncovered in war crimes trials of the Nazi/Fascist leaders, the U.S. signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Geneva Convention as well as subsequent conventions. Rebecca Evans writes:

“The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, in unqualified terms, that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (Article 5). The Geneva Conventions of 1949 not only provide protection for enemy combatants and civilians but also instruct that unlawful combatants must be ‘treated with humanity and … shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial’ (Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 5). The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits torture even ‘during public emergencies that threaten the life of the nation’ (Articles 4 and 7). Similarly, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment insists that ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability of any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture’ (Article 2).”

It would be interesting to see how many Americans today agree or disagree with these statements. In light of recent poll results, I suspect no more than around 20 percent would strongly agree.

Legalities aside, it’s the moral and ethical questions that are of concern because in the moral calculus that 80 percent of Americans are willing to use to justify torture (generally viewed as an evil act), to torture one person to obtain information to stop another 9/11 or worse (the Fox series “24” justification), do we also calculate the corrosive effect of violating our own moral positions? Since so much of the moral discussion is in terms of “effectiveness” then should that calculation also not estimate the inevitable loosening and “normalizing” of torture?

History shows this is the case, from Abu Ghraib to the French in Algiers to Argentina in the 1970s. The use of torture, history shows, undermines the rule of law, something that should be very worrisome to a “nation of laws.” Is the use of torture in the war on terrorism related to the seeming increase in police brutality? History suggests that it may be. We have been in the war on terrorism now for over a decade. President Obama ordered torture stopped. What assurance is that?

If “effective” is the justification for what is moral or not, then Jim Wright poses this challenge to that argument:

“Theft is an effective means of making a living.

“Murder is an effective means of winning an argument.

“Abortion is an effective means of ending a pregnancy.

“Terrorism is an effective means of conveying a political point.”

We need a national conversation on where the lines should be drawn, much like we have been having with abortion for 40+ years. Where is the point too far? Is torturing, raping or beheading a family member of a suspected terrorist justified if it’s effective? How about slowly cutting off fingers, toes, nose, ears, then limbs with an axe, if it’s effective? Why not bomb Mecca if a suspected Islamic terrorist doesn’t cooperate? Where is it that our moral compass finally quivers over to “no, not justified.”

Lastly, Americans used to value freedom over all else and claim that it was the universal value. What does a prisoner want more than anything else? To escape; to be free. So, why don’t we offer their freedom in exchange for what we want? If giving Sheik Mohammed Khalid his freedom in exchange for information to stop another 9/11 or worse, wouldn’t it be worth it?

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