Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Torture Awareness Month

Lest we think the ceremonial naming of months is merely a public relations tactic employed by for lobbyists from the Pork Council or the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association, this June is Torture Awareness Month. Of course, according to Wikipedia, June is also Samurai Awareness Month, so go figure.

Sadly, torture has become a terrible blot on our country, and the time has long since passed to make some noise. We've all heard the litany of abuse: First, Bush will not be abiding by the Geneva Conventions. Then (surprised?) the photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Thus far only a few lowly 'bad apples' are implicated, but as Sy Hersh reported in the New Yorker, the abuse was possibly orchestrated and approved by military intelligence in a desperate attempt to gather information on the insurgency. Guantanamo Bay and the mysterious 'black sites' in Europe and Asia, have become a land beyond law, where hundreds of people have been held incommunicado and largely without access to the courts. Now there have been 3 suicides. It has become so embarassing, that Congress even passed a law prohibiting the use of torture; Bush signed it, but then delivered a signing statement claiming he will obey the law only when it suits him. This is bad.

The pro-torture apologists always tend to come up with one of two responses: (1) the bad guys do worse things, or (2) the inevitable 'ticking time bomb' scenario.

The first argument, while emotionally appealing in light of some of the horrible things that go on in the world, is just morally dumb. That sort of argument didn't cut any ice in kindergarten and sinking down to the lowest level of humanity in our national policy is no way to run a country now that we're grown-ups (well, some of us anyway). It is, at it's core, a scare tactic. The strongest argument against torture is simply that it is evil and wrong. It was wrong when Saddam and Pinochet and others did it - it's still wrong now. The fact that we are a democracy is no fig leaf here. Indeed, it makes it all our responsibility.

The second argument shows how much Hollywood action movies have informed our political debate. We can just see Bruce Willis beating the crucial life-saving info out of some sweaty terrorist, defusing the bomb, rescuing his tough (yet imperiled) former wife and delivering comeuppance to the spineless bureaucrat. Go Bruce Go! The real-world, it turns out, isn't very much like the climax of an action movie. I know, I know, it's shocking to think that Hollywood has misled us on this matter, but it's true. The vast, vast majority of people in question are not Al Qaeda masterminds with secret information about imminent attacks. Most of the prisoners at Gitmo have been there for three years or more; even if they were once high-up in AQ (and almost all of them weren't) any intelligence they might have now is worse than useless. Some were 'bought' from Afghan warlords for $5000 a head. Some were picked up on 'hunch' of some CIA officer and later released without charges after it was apparent they were nobodies. Most of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were taxi drivers in the wrong place or the brother-in-law of some wanted insurgent picked up in a general sweep.

It's never a good idea to base your official policy on a rare case. In the heat of the moment, it's too tempting to see every situation as life-or-death, when in hindsight it's really not. We would have to ask ourselves, how many innocent people do we want to torture in order to find that needle in the haystack that will hypothetically save American lives? 1000? 10,000? And remember, such a policy means 10,000 false leads to add to the top of the haystack (if you torture someone enough they will typically say anything to make it stop). It's also pretty easy to be pro-torture when you're white and/or American; you really don't have to worry that each time you board a plane, you might end up in a cell in Syria for ten months (as happened to Maher Arar).

And what have we lost in exchange for this hypothetical gain? We've lost the respect of our allies, confirmed fears that we are an unaccountable tyranny, spawned yet more insurgents and joined a tawdry fraternity of nations condemned by Amnesty and the Red Cross. To paraphrase Karl Rove, it will take the U.S. generations to live down the Abu Ghraib pictures and gain credibility in the Middle East. It's time we started making amends.

For ideas on how to make your voice heard: http://www.tortureawareness.org/

Join Amnesty International

Sign this petition: http://www.nrcat.org

1 comment:

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