On Torture

On Tuesday, and against the wishes and behind-the-scene efforts of the Obama Administration, the long-awaited Senate report on the investigation of the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation” program was released.

I put “Enhanced Interrogation” in quotation marks because it is a euphemism for torture which abuses the plain meaning of language in the same way it abuses flesh. The term was first pioneered by none other that the Third Reich. Seriously, Bush II Administration officials were running around using torture code words invented by the Nazis.  And torture it was, as we’ll get to later.

In the aftermath, the media has been giving people, both inside the CIA and in positions of influence inside the Bush II team, plenty of airtime to try and justify their choices to the American people in a desperate attempt to avoid a reckoning for their actions. They’ve told us that torture was necessary, that it saved lives, maybe even your family’s lives.

Here’s the central problem with the arguments of every torture apologist and defender. The utility and effectiveness of torture is not a matter of opinion. It is an indisputable fact, supported by mountains of evidence and experience, that torture does not elicit reliable, actionable intelligence.

For every person you break who gives up a kernel of useful information, there are ten or twenty more that say whatever they think you want to hear just to make the suffering stop. It creates false leads and muddies the water. That bad intel goes on to waste resources, time, and manpower while our intelligence apparatus runs wild goose chases, follows blind alleys to dead ends, and ensnares an ever-growing collection of innocent people who are then also subject to torture, causing the problem to snowball further.

And let’s be clear about what’s being discussed here. We’re not talking about soldiers in an active warzone interrogating  prisoners while under fire, their buddies getting shot up or killed around them, when desperation causes emotions to run high and maybe somebody gets smacked around. While not excusing the mistreatment of prisoners of war, I am sympathetic to the stresses troops in the field face in the heat of battle and the snap decisions and impossible choices they often have to make.

Apologists often talk about a “ticking time bomb” scenario, where Jack Bauer only has thirty minutes to get the codes to diffuse the nuke before Seattle is turned into a crater, or something.  But that’s Hollywood counter-terrorism. It’s scripted television where the bad guy always caves at the last second, and coughs up the right codes so the hero can save the day with one second left on the countdown timer.

That’s not the real world, and that’s not what was revealed in the Senate report. Instead, we’re talking about prisoners transported thousands of miles away from any legitimate theater of active combat, restrained, defenseless, forced for weeks and months to live in rooms too small to either stand up or lay down, tied into stress positions for so long they shit themselves, deprived of sleep to the point of hallucinations, kept in cold cells and soaked with water until they were hypothermic, threatened with dogs, anally raped, forced to endure near-drowning dozens or hundreds of times, their families, wives, and children threatened with rape and death, exposed to fake executions, made to walk on broken legs, then beaten so viciously with battons that their legs liqufied.

It’s an inarguable fact that some of these men died while  in our care. The official story was always suicide or natural causes, which simply insults the intelligence of anyone who has read the reports. Many captives were later found to be completely innocent. This went on for years. There was no ticking time bomb.

If this was done to our captured troops, or one of our contractors, or to a kidnapped civilian, the government and media wouldn’t hesitate to call it exactly what it is. Torture.

Even if some tiny sliver of the information that was brutally extracted from these men had been true, and there’s nothing in the Senate report to indicate that any actionable intelligence was extracted through the program, the price to our nation’s principles and our standing in the world was far too high.

Yes, sometimes bad people kill good people. That’s the world we live in. But, the price of calling yourself the good guys is you have rules. You have a code of behavior that places you above the evil men who commit atrocities.

Personally, I have no issue with violence, and I’m pretty pragmatic about killing when the situation merits, but there is a time and a place for both, and wearing the white hat comes with conditions.

We used to be a great people who could face any challenge with dignity. We defeated the British Empire, (no hard feelings, lads, you’re all right), the Spanish, the Germans, the Nazis, the Japanese Empire, and outlasted the Soviet Union. We confronted all of these intractable, existential threats to our sovereignty and liberty without having to resort to the sort of barbarism found in the Senate report, even when it was used against us.

Are we so weakened, so diminished, and so scared that a single act of terrorism justifies abandoning more than two centuries of noble tradition, in the face of an “enemy” that has never, and could never, present a serious threat to our continued existence? I say no. But then, I believe in the promise of America, even when it’s difficult.

Especially when it’s difficult.

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