‘Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.”
President Barack Obama on Thursday? No, President Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to the Army more than 100 years ago, after learning that some soldiers had resorted to “the water cure” or “Chinese water torture” on insurrectionists in the Philippines. An altered version, still horrifying, is now called waterboarding, and the Central Intelligence Agency has admitted to its use on at least three terrorists.
The Bush administration says waterboarding fell into the category of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which it didn’t consider torture. Recently released memos show Bush-era lawyers engaging in twisted rationalizations for techniques that have long been considered torture. Waterboarding was used by our enemies in World War II. The Khmer Rouge used it in Cambodia. In several instances, the United States has denounced it as torture. This nation also signed onto the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”
Throughout the long history of torture, defenders have claimed the enemy was so evil and barbaric that special measures were needed. Defenders of “enhanced interrogations” are no different. However, insurrectionists in the Philippines committed abominable atrocities, yet Roosevelt still saw that interrogation policy isn’t about the enemy; it’s about us. Torture does not reflect American values.
What’s more, torture isn’t particularly effective. The FBI interrogator of al-Qaida terrorists told Congress that he elicited vital information with nonviolent measures before the CIA took over and “enhanced” the sessions. Most experts have made the same point: Torture victims will say whatever they think will stop the pain. Lies work just as well as the truth.
The best course is to follow the military’s code on torture. This matter should have been settled last year, but President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that barred the CIA from going outside the military’s techniques. Because the debate has been re-energized, politics have come into play. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appears to have known about enhanced techniques for quite some time. That is embarrassing for her and for Democrats who want Bush administration officials prosecuted for torture.
While it may seem clear to passionate partisans that crimes were committed, proving that is another matter. Alan Lerner of the American Society of International Law notes in a recent analysis that such prosecutions would be problematic given the complexities of international law, the high burden of proof and the general atmosphere of secrecy.
The best course for the nation is to lay out the truth, with the goal of never again succumbing to the dark temptation of torture. We need to re-establish unequivocally that we are better than that.
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