We have been hearing a lot about torture recently, specifically questioning whether the Bush administration employed torture methods against terrorists to extract valuable national security information.
Merriam-Webster defines torture as “the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.” Another is contained in Article 1 of the Declaration against Torture adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1975, which states: “torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes of obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he committed, or intimidating him or other persons.”
Historically, torture includes such truly horrible things as boiling, flaying, disembowelment, crucifixion, impalement, crushing, stoning, burning, dismemberment, sawing, beating, breaking limbs and bamboo shoots shoved under the fingernails. Is that what is being charged against the Bush administration?
Honestly, hardly any Americans defend the use of torture under any circumstances, and especially as a matter of routine interrogation practice, or against mere “foot soldiers.” A dilemma arises, however, when a terrorist with critical knowledge of planned terrorist attacks, perhaps an imminent attack, is captured; the “ticking bomb” scenario. How can we get that crucial, life-saving information?
The acts that the Bush administration is being pilloried for are 10 things identified in the memos President Obama foolishly declassified and released for everyone in the world to read: wall standing, stress positions, cramped confinement, walling, facial hold, cramped confinement, facial slap, sleep deprivation, attention grasp and water-boarding. These acts don’t result in “severe pain or suffering” or lasting physical or psychological damage, are usually attended by medical personnel to see that the terrorists aren’t harmed, and quite frankly, most of them are no more severe than fraternity initiation pranks and basic military training activities; as far from real torture as Earth is from Pluto.
Imagine asking a victim of impalement just before he expires, “How glad are you that you weren’t subjected to cramped confinement, sleep deprivation or water-boarding instead of merely being impaled on spears?” His likely response, were he able to utter one, would be unprintable.
This is one of an increasing number of topics, like global warming, where ideological zealots have hijacked the debate, and when discussing torture sleep deprivation is equated with flaying and boiling in oil; there is no middle ground. But, calling those 10 things torture is not just inaccurate, it is dishonest.
The word torture must be used accurately, to describe actual torture, not mere discomfort. In the quirky world we live in today sleep deprivation and putting people in stress positions become be equated with disembowelment and sawing someone slowly in half.
It’s a wonderful thing to hold to high-minded ideals, and to place ourselves above such things as torture. But when the chips are down and American lives are in danger, and we have captured someone who has information that can prevent their injury or death, what are the high-minded going to do?
Under the current rules we are allowed to politely ask terrorists something like: “OK, Mr. Terrorist, you know where a bomb is that will kill Americans. If you cooperate and tell us where it is, we’ll go easy on you.” We might even be able to use some intimidation and threats. But if the terrorist answers with something like, “You’ll find out soon enough,” we’ve done all we can do under the rules, and people’s lives are left to the fates.
Some people in this country would be content with that, to let people die without further effort. But if our child or spouse was in danger, most of us — those with a soul — would do whatever it took to get the information, even if it meant water-boarding the terrorist, or actually torturing him. And we wouldn’t bat an eye in doing so, because we want to save our loved one from injury or death; that is more important. We will do well to remember that these techniques worked and prevented several terrorist attacks after 9-11, one of which was in Los Angeles and another in London.
Interestingly, in the memos that tell the world the techniques we used to extract critical information from terrorists, the attacks those techniques prevented are blacked out.
But these are strange times we live in, and there is a faction of Americans who hate George Bush so much that they are willing and eager to prosecute members of his administration for doing things that saved the lives of untold numbers of Americans and other innocents.
Protecting American lives is one of the few legitimate functions of our government, and Barack Obama seems ready to penalize people for actions that were undertaken with the best of intentions to do just that. And so will begin a process of criminalizing the actions of previous administrations that has never been done before in this nation.
And after his presidency, Mr. Obama may find himself looking over his shoulder, and wondering why.
Cross-posted from Observations