Why We Don’t Torture

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This diary title has been sitting in my drafts folder for at least two months.  Slippery assignment, it turns out.  It would be easier to explain “Why Love is Enjoyable.”  General answer?  For several reasons, most of them obvious to normal humans.  If it comes to  “Why Do News Need Programs Need Facts” or “Why Do Poor People Need Food,” I’ll probably throw up my hands.  For now, I’m determined to give this one a shot.

The apparently confusing question of our country’s relation to torture is made perfectly clear when we realize that the answer has everything to do with “us” and nothing whatsoever to do with “them.”  Our country was founded on a belief in the rights and dignity of every human being.  Since our founding, we have been striving toward a more perfect realization of this cornerstone ideal.

I heard famous liberal Whoopi Goldberg say whether to torture should be decided on a “case by case” basis.  I just heard Bill Maher discuss with more than one guest whether torture worked.  Each guest did eventually get around to mentioning that it also happens to be a FUNDAMENTAL VIOLATION OF WHO WE ARE.  Well, maybe it’s not such a violation anymore, because this sickening discussion has been going on for months.

Modern-day Americans may be surprised to learn that, historically, the constructive, humane uses of torture have been little debated.  Long presumed a scourge visited on the weak by the powerful, torture has ever and always been associated with totalitarianism.  Torture forces people to behave as the torturer wishes.  In a democracy, government legitimizes its control from consent of the governed.  In western jurisprudence, control is based on evidence and the rule of law.  In scientific societies, control is skillfully exercised on the basis of reliable information.  In short, inhumane tools of coercive control have no place in a democratic, just, and scientific society.  

If we insist on analyzing the utility of torture, we can state unequivocally that it is only useful to people who wish to control others on the sole basis of being more powerful than they.  That is the beginning and end of the usefulness of torture.  Torture is not a useful tool of justice–it clouds the facts.  Torture is not a useful tool of war–it feeds the resolve of the enemy.  Torture is not a useful tool of espionage–it severely undermines the possibility of recruiting human assets from the other side, to name one problem among many.

But by far, the worst result of torture is that it hopelessly corrupts the torturer.  If we lose our essence, what have we defended?  We don’t torture because it violates THE core basis for our founding, our system of government and our system of law–the unalienable rights of the individual.

The Declaration of Independence seeks to justify our existence as a nation.  Ninety one words into our birth, we find the phrase, “unalienable rights.”

all men [read all humans] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights

The right of each individual to dignity in his person is inherent, unalienable.  Neither heinous behavior nor governmental necessity renders this right forfeit.  Only in the most immediate need for self-defense does our state allow the violation of a person’s dignity.  The most sadistic serial killer must be treated with dignity the moment he is in the custody of the state.  

This cornerstone of our founding is enshrined in U.S law as described by Bush administration lawyer Philip Zelikow in the Foreign Policy web site:

Once you get to a substantive compliance analysis for “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” you get the position that the substantive standard is the same as it is in analogous U.S. constitutional law. So the OLC must argue, in effect, that the methods and the conditions of confinement in the CIA program could constitutionally be inflicted on American citizens in a county jail.

(Consider the implications of the above for whether the approved methods were illegal.  To take one of the mildest methods under discussion, being forced to sit in one’s own waste is undoubtedly degrading.)

We do not believe in waterboarding U.S. citizens in prison.  We do not discuss whether this would be an effective means to control the prison population.  We do not debate the effectiveness of stress positions as a means to pry information from prisoners.  Our core belief, a basis of our system of justice, is that every human enjoys an inherent right to dignity in their person.

Crucially, the right to dignity does not vary among different classes of persons.  Without exception, we look back at times when we indulged the unfortunate human blindness to the full humanity of a class of people as a violation of our ideals.  We rue our compromise with slavery, we are shamed by our treatment of Native Americans, we deeply regret the incarceration of Japanese Americans.  We have done these things–we are far from perfect–but we do not argue that they were effective or necessary.  We view them rightly as a departure from our core beliefs.  We must also view our recent torturing as a horrific departure from who we are.

Did we end torture after WWII because we thought it hadn’t been effective for the Nazis?  Did we debate whether torture was necessary?  No.  We knew without consideration that torture was a behavior which distinguished us from Nazis–totalitarians.  Our infatuation with winning at all costs has clouded some thinking here.  During WWII, we hoped to do everything consistent with our values to win.  We did not hope to outdo the Nazis in torturing and genocide; our stated reason for fighting was to protect the world from these inhuman practices.  (I know, reality is complex, but stated motivations do count for something.)  We never debated whether our chances of winning would increase were we to use torture.  We understood that if we began to torture, we had already lost.  A discussion of the possible merits or necessity of torture was unthinkable in 1946.  And no one felt the need to do as I am doing here, attempt to explain why we don’t torture.

In summary, our country was birthed in the wisdom of the enlightenment, whose breakthrough understanding was that each individual has a right to dignity in his person.  Our entire system of government and of justice is founded on this fundamental principle.  Torture is a clear and obvious violation of this core principle.  This is why we don’t torture.

Of course, this is in addition to the inconvenient fact that torture is illegal everywhere and under all circumstances.  And it’s morally repugnant.

Next week:  Why Genocide is Offensive.

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6 comments

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    • geomoo on April 25, 2009 at 8:49 am
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    The sentence “Torture works” is inherently disgusting.  What the hell does “works” mean?  We are a deeply confused people.

  1. The whole discussion as to whether it works or not already says that we dabble with the idea of the use of it.  To dabble with it in any way, shape or form indicates some leniency toward it.  Yes, there is room to debate the issue of torture!  WTF?  No, even if torture “worked” — IT IS ILLEGAL PERIOD — END OF STORY.  There is nothing to discuss of its merits one way or another — TORTURE IS ILLEGAL.  To discuss it in the ways it has been framed by Cheney, and others, is to deflect from the severity of what has been done and seeks to explain justification for it.  NO, AND NO AND NO — TORTURE IS ILLEGAL.  (Of course, it is immoral, but that doesn’t enter into it — the fact that it’s illegal would imply thereby that is obviously immoral, as well, I would think.)

  2. It’s been proven.  You entry is an excellent reason why we didn’t do it during World War II, at least, not as a matter of policy.  But it should be undeniable by all that the U.S. is now a country that tortures its victims.

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