America Must Stand for Freedom, Not Torture

The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed.  It is the very essence and reason for his being.  If he violates this sacred trust, he profanes his entire culture. 

– General Douglas MacArthur

We stand for freedom, not the self-serving moral relativism that excuses torture.

America must stand for freedom, not narcissistic moral relativism that excuses torture and criminal acts.

In America, we say we stand for freedom, democracy, pursuing happiness, being innocent until proven guilty, and all of those things we proudly quote from our founding documents and the Constitution. I happen to be a patriot and a true believer in all of these words. Which is why I’m both astonished and outraged to see that a majority of our fellow Americans believe that the CIA’s widespread program of torture was justified.

It’s true we’ve been talking for years about the practice of waterboarding. We’ve debated in depth the legal limbo we’ve created even for the innocent detainees held over the years at Guantanamo.  We’ve watched as our enemies have capitalized and recruited fighters based on the anger and resentment across the world precipitated by the photos and reports on torture committed at Abu Ghraib. But even as we deplored acts of torture, and we supported the trials and sentencing of the low-ranking soldiers seen torturing detainees in those photos, no high-level officials were held accountable beyond administrative punishments. Gen. Antonio Taguba, tasked with fully investigating the military’s involvement in the Abu Ghraib scandal, was not permitted to investigate CIA policies and practices even as he believed the torture didn’t originate with the soldiers.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released last week is what, after years of compilation and fact gathering, and a hurried release before the new Congress convenes, finally reveals that torture was, in fact, the standard practice of the CIA for many years in shadowy detention facilities across the globe. And that is only what we now know from what has been declassified and summarized–there could be other revelations in the future. And it has also been noted elsewhere that there remains even more evidence, to include nearly 2,100 photos, documenting abuse of detainees by members of the military as well as the CIA, that yet remain classified. But one matter at a time. The Senate Committee report demands a response.

This is an incomplete list, but a fair summary of what troubles me so deeply about this report:

The CIA Tortured Innocent People. At least one out of every five of the detainees tortured by the CIA were at some point determined to be cases of mistaken identity or otherwise innocent. This included a man who was mentally disabled, held and tortured as “leverage” against a family member. If one wishes to argue that “terrorists deserve torture” while at the same time finding no trouble with the fact that detainees later found to be completely innocent were tortured, then this is no longer a matter of targeting terrorists–it is a statement that it is just okay to torture people based on assumptions about race or religion or nationality.

The CIA Raped People. “Rectal feeding,” “rectal rehydration,” and rectal exams–or any measure of anal penetration with objects or otherwise–for anything other than emergency medical purposes–is rape. There is no other word for this. Rectal exams were conducted with “excessive force,” with at least one detainee shown to have anal fissures and rectal prolapse–meaning that his rectum literally collapsed and came through his anal opening. This isn’t a matter of my interpretation–this is completely in accordance with the FBI’s definition of rape. Civilized people do not support or tolerate rape in any circumstance. Ever.

The CIA’s Torture Practices Were Barbaric. Documented, repeated practices by the CIA included: beating people severely, chaining them to walls, stripping them naked, hosing them with cold water, confining them in small boxes, forcing them to urinate and defecate on themselves, forcing them to remain in their own excrement, forcing them to stand in chains on broken feet and legs, drowning them repeatedly, forcing them to remain sleepless for up to 96 hours at a time, raping them, threatening to murder and rape their family members–and yet we still have people claiming this wasn’t really torture, or wasn’t really so bad after all. Medical personnel were part of the oversight–in order to ensure the detainees survived the torture, yet one man still died of hypothermia while chained to a wall. Just because the CIA’s program made it a point to keep detainees alive to prolong the torture and interrogations does not mean the torture was minimal or anything short of barbaric.

Jingoism is a poor disguise--or excuse--for the brutality and hypocrisy of torture.

Jingoism is a poor disguise–or excuse–for the brutality, criminality, and blatant hypocrisy of torture.

Waterboarding Was Developed From Training Designed for Troops to Withstand Torture. The U.S. Army’s and Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Rescue, and Escape (SERE) schools take medically and psychologically vetted individuals and waterboard them for the exclusive purpose of training them to survive what is presumed to be a barbaric enemy’s torture practice. Waterboarding is the practice of literally drowning a person by filling his or her lungs with water. The CIA took the SERE instructors’ methods and implemented them to torture people continuously, some nearly two hundred times. A former SERE master instructor describes it as this:

Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration. Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia – meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells.

Waterboarding Was Once a Crime for Which Japanese Soldiers Were Convicted and Executed. Following World War II, the Tokyo Trials were held by an international coalition, which included the U.S., to bring Japanese soldiers to trial for the war crimes they committed. At the top of the list of torture practices against U.S. and other allied troops was waterboarding, also known as water torture or water “cure.” Many of those found guilty by U.S. judges were executed, others given long sentences or time in labor camps. Testimonies of U.S. soldiers waterboarded by the Japanese are included here. There is also at least one case of a U.S. soldier being courtmartialed for waterboarding a prisoner during the Vietnam war.

After Pearl Harbor and World War II, U.S. judges prosecuted Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American troops.

After Pearl Harbor and World War II, U.S. judges prosecuted Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American troops. What about the 9/11 attacks is so different that this could somehow justify torture?

The U.S. Has a Long History of Condemning Torture. Even when the stakes were highest for our nation’s political and military leaders, they unequivocally condemned torture and enforced policies that explicitly prohibited torture. It was always more important to win the moral high ground, and to distinguish U.S. forces from the cruelties of our enemies. All of these words are worth reading in full:

Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.

– General George Washington, Order to the Northern Expeditionary Forces, 1775

Treat them with humanity, and Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.

– General George Washington, Order to the Continental Army following the Battle of Trenton, 1776

Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.

– General Orders No. 100, Issued to the Union Armies, 1863

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 Theodore Roosevelt, Cable to Commanding General of the U.S. Army in the Philippines, 1902

In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; (b) taking of hostages; (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; (d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgement pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

– Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (I), of which the U.S. was (and remains) a signatory, 1949

The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.

– President Ronald Reagan, Signing Statement ratifying the United Nations Convention on Torture, 1984

Torture Is a Betrayal of What We Fought For. We went to war to defend our nation’s soil, our ideals, and our way of life from the terrorists who sought to inflict horror upon us. We found them in Afghanistan, and committed to preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda or others who would threaten us. We went to war in Iraq because our leaders told us it would preempt a nuclear/WMD atttack, then we battled Al Qaeda affiliates there. For those of us who worked for months (years, even) to convince the everyday people and nascent democratic governments of these countries that we stood with them on the side of freedom, justice, and individual liberty–our work is undone when our actions show direct opposition to the values we proclaim. In the end, those we worked with in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond will judge us for our actions. History will also judge us for our actions. As one of my military colleagues, a veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, asked as he’s taken in all of this:

“How will I convince my children and grandchildren that we were the good guys?”

American leaders over history have consistently taken the moral high ground on torture, resisting the allure of moral relativism and the narcissistic desire for vengeance and retribution, even when it might’ve played well to voters. Until this generation. No amount of rewording (detainee vs. prisoner of war, torture vs. enhanced interrogation techniques, etc.) or spin campaigns or repeated Machiavellian pronouncements or otherwise will change this legacy: the U.S., despite its long history of defending the basic rights of combatants held prisoner, has nevertheless pursued an extensive program of torture since 2001, and the American people by a majority were okay with it at the time.

Can we not do better than this, America?

P.S. – Torture doesn’t even work anyway.

5 thoughts on “America Must Stand for Freedom, Not Torture

  1. I’m currently reading “Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America” by David K. Shipler. He writes a great deal about confessions gained through torture, coercion and other tactics. The surprise is how often people who, under a given set of circumstances, will confess to things they haven’t done.

    Despite evidence showing the lack of efficacy, I think people believe television tropes where the suspect gives up useful information through threats and violence. The Intelligence Science Board, an independent advising body to the Director of National Intelligence, released a study in 2006 stating that there was no evidence that coercive interrogation could reliably produce intelligence. That board was curiously disbanded in 2010.

    You’re dead on with this post. Moral relativism is not a high ground.


  2. Thank you for sharing these insights. I found your blog post through a Truman Project tweet. I agree with your observations. I think your closing question – “Can we not do better than this, America?” – should be a rhetorical one; of course we can do better. However, in the current political climate I’m not sure (as your link references) that we can.

    I look forward to following your blog going forward.


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