Torture

PERINO: I would refer you back to that speech, and in it the President said, I will not be coming back to you every time we might hold somebody in the future because these are classified for a reason; we’re trying to protect the American people and the more information that’s out there that gives other people clues as to what we might or may not … who we may or may not have … the President said we’re not going to be providing information. And we did do … I think there was one … we have told you when we have transferred people to … terrorists to Gitmo, but we haven’t been in the habit of doing a press release every time we have a prisoner.

QUESTION: Does the administration still assert that it does not engage or authorize torture?

PERINO: Absolutely. This country does not torture. It is the policy of the United States that we do not torture … and we do not.

Here’s a hint, if you have to do as much tap dancing as the administration has done in defense of its torture policies, you’re probably doing something wrong.

I find it a little bit ironic that on most issues, it is the left that must continuously explain and defend nuanced issues, however, when it comes to torture, the Bush Administration has engaged on an epic quest to inject as much nuance into the debate as possible for a simple goal: make torture legal.

Meanwhile, many of my colleagues and friends on the left are about as black and white on the issue as possible.  Torture is morally wrong, it does not work, and further soils the already sullied reputation of our nation which has been so poorly treated by the current President.  There is no excuse to employ it.  There can be no justification in the present, or when history imprints indellibly on future generations the tone and context in which we are viewed.

There is simply no honor in torture.

For something so greatly true, there can be no compromise of the facts, there are no gray areas.  It is not a question of one person’s definition versus another’s.  But from the very beginning, and even before it, there are those that see the world through slightly different tinted lenses.

In a perfect world, these people would not exist.  In a slightly less perfect, but still particularly more pleasant, world than we currently live in, these people would be marginalized and mitigated, their views on the morality and effectiveness of torture would be forever buried in the refuse heap of the marketplace of ideas, never to see the light of day.

But we live in neither a perfect world, or one just short of perfection, and world events will affect, for a temporary time, how people perceive the world about them.  Their moral compasses will waver, and justifications will be made.

The modern era of American Torture began, arguably, at the onset of the Cold War.  The entire Western world was held in thrall when prominent members of its community would find themselves in court of Soviet puppet states, and in an almost eerie calm, confess to actions and crimes that were virtually impossible for them to commit.

This not only captured the terrified imagination of a public already on edge as a result of creeping terror of the Reds, but also sparked an interest by the United States in reverse engineering how communist forces were able to create such docile complicity.

The trek of experimentation led down a dark and twisted path, including the usage of illegal substances on test subjects, as well as some particularly heinous physical and psychological tortures.  It was from these practices that SERE (Survival, Escape, Resistence, and Evasion) training evolved.

SERE training was in fact intended to innoculate American military personnel from torture techniques such that if they were captured in the theater of war, they would be able to adequately resist torture techniques, thereby protecting valuable information.

Itself a brutal program, SERE was not restricted to usage amongst our military.  In time techniques perfected in SERE training were actually employed through black ops around the world by the US.

And of course, if that didn’t work, then we would simply hand over key prisoners to those countries that didn’t have the same moral apprehensions towards training that we do.

As events that can alter world perception go, though, September 11th, 2001 provided one of the largest.  The largest terrorist attack in American history resulted in the death of over 3000 Americans, and gripped a nation in fear.

Fear.  If anything is capable of altering the way people think on a massive level, it is fear.  In fact, there is scientific evidence that shows that fear significantly alters the way the mind works, bypassing reason centers, and triggering almost counterintuitive instinctual behavior, such as the desire to reestablish one’s cultural world view as is the basis behind Terror Management Theory.

What is considerably alarming is that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that occured six years ago is the willingness of so many Americans to stand up and say that they would gladly lose some of their rights if doing so would make them safer.  It mattered little if you lived in a metropolitan area with high priority targets, or if you lived in little more than a village where everyone knows each others’ names, and secrets can’t be kept but for so long.

We were afraid, and being afraid changed everything.

It also opened the door further for torture.  It is reasonable to assert that several major factors contributed to this.  The survival instinct, get them before they get us.  A desire for revenge, a need by many Americans to visit upon our aggressors the same transgressions they visited upon us, or at least pain in some equal measure.  And finally the demonization of those who were in some way adjacent to those responsible for 9/11.

To this end, the Bush administration has, from the beginning, payed only the most cursory of lip service to the idea that torture is wrong.  To date, Bush has never admitted to outright condoning torture, and has, every step of the way, denied that the US has ever employed torture techniques under his watch.

But while Bush maintained that we did not torture, what happened behind the curtain was a far more complex story.  DoJ, and White House lawyers were busy at work twisting and bending the law in as many contortions as possible to find the most narrow possible definition of torture conceivable, leading to the now infamous definition that describes torture as only that which leads to pain equivalent to “organ failure or death.”

Under so thin a description, SERE techniques, waterboarding, and forms of psychological torture were easily codified as legal.  The first of these abominations to enter the public consciousness in earnest came about through the photos at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Much of the public was outraged, but to the credit of the effect that September 11th had on us, a significant part of the population saw little to nothing wrong with the atrocities that occured there; justifications ranging from Rush Limbaughs grossly off the mark assertion that these were just soldiers “blowing off steam” to the slightly less reprehensible logic that we must do unto them as they would do unto us were not uncommon.

In fact, much of the past few years has been a seemingly endless battle of whether we torture, and whether those practices we do endorse should be called torture.  But there can be no mistake made, despite the legal acrobatics of attorneys such as Alberto Gonzales, and Steven Bradbury, what was going on was in fact torture.

Now, after the Bush definitions of death or organ faillure for torture has been rejected, and Bush made a public statement that prisoners in secret CIA black ops prisons were transfered to Gitmo (not much better as legal eagles for the Administration use some clever law bending to keep the US base in Cuba off the legal radar and open for torture techniques) it has come to light that some such as Bradbury have conducted secret legal opinions, and Bush has enacted secretive Executive orders, to continue the practices of torture and holding prisoners in overseas black ops prisons.

The White House has even gone so far as to acknowledge this, but still maintains that its practices are within the confines of the law.  This is not surprising considering that much of the debate has centered on the fact that the Administration has worked particularly hard at finding loopholes and significantly engineered legal opinions to make the illegal legal.

But as I mentioned earlier, compounding the moral problems with torture is the fact that it is largely ineffective.

Some intelligence officers say that many of Mr. Mohammed’s statements proved exaggerated or false. One problem, a former senior agency official said, was that the C.I.A.’s initial interrogators were not experts on Mr. Mohammed’s background or Al Qaeda, and it took about a month to get such an expert to the secret prison. The former official said many C.I.A. professionals now believe patient, repeated questioning by well-informed experts is more effective than harsh physical pressure.

The logic behind this is not all that difficult to understand.  Nor is the logic for the justification to engage in torture. 

The purpose for engaging in torture is to provide a means of extracting information from an uncooperative subject.  If they do not answer questions, you apply enough pressure that they do answer the questions to alleviate said pressure.  But the problem is that torture is not a guarantee to the veracity of the information given.  What is likely to happen is that a prisoner will provide information that the interrogator wants to hear, especially during those instances when truthful answers are not adequate in putting an end to the torture.

In fact, coerced information has both integrity and morality problems so significant that it is not allowed in our own legal system.  This begs the question what makes prisoners ostensibly captured as terrorists different?  While some may argue the legal jurisdiction, this does not in any way alter the moral dynamics, nor does it change the significant questions regarding the integrity of the information obtained.  Because someone is not an American citizen, or because they are a suspected terrorist does not mean that coercive interrogations are more likely to yield reliable information.

Which brings us to the ultimate question.  Bush knows that torture is wrong, or else he would not make a concerted effort to engage in a years long PR campaign to assure the public that we do not engage in torture.  Further, as Commander in Chief, he has to know the numbers on these programs, and must know their effectiveness which, to be blunt, is not much.  As an additional factor, it is also known that as we conditionally seem to be coming out of the post 9/11 stupor that has clouded our judgement during the years following, Americans are growing more and more intolerant to torture practices.

After all this, why the continuing push?  Is it simply a facet of the neoconservative ideology to which he is in thrall?  Or is it a strict belief that someday, they may actually work?

The motivation as to why Bush continues to pursue torture as a viable tactic despite moral, legal, and viability problems may never be known.  What is known, however, is that Andrew Sullivan is probably not too terribly far off the mark when he asserts that this Administration is guilty of war crimes.

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