On torture-7: The ‘acting in good faith’ excuses


(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let’s continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 4: Even if it did violate binding laws and treaties, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

See the response to excuse #2 (“Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.”)

Excuse 5: The people who committed torture should not be prosecuted because they were told it was legal and they were merely following orders.

People who bring up this argument are either extremely ignorant, being willfully obtuse, or lying. Is there anyone in this day and age who does not know that this so-called “Nuremberg defense” is not valid? The defense that people should not be punished for obeying orders was not allowed during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war crimes after World War II and which has set the modern standard for how such crimes should be treated. Neither was the defense that the accusing parties were also guilty of the same crimes as the accused. “Just following orders” and “Others did it too” cannot be used to justify war crimes.

This principle was further reinforced in article 2, section 3 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which states that: “An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Excuse 6: If we prosecute those who committed torture, then in future they will be “always looking over their shoulders” when conducting interrogations and be hesitant to take strong actions for fear of prosecution.

That is the whole point. People with the power of life or death over others should always be concerned about stepping over the line. They should always be looking over their shoulders, and take into account that if they commit excesses, they might face prosecution. This is what keeps atrocities in check. We want police and other security personnel to be keenly aware that there are lines that must not be crossed and that if they do, they will face the consequences. They may go ahead and do it anyway, but they should not assume while doing so that they have immunity for any and all actions. That have to be conscious of the fact that they will be called to justify why they chose the actions they did. And if they cannot justify it, they should expect to be prosecuted.

Excuse 7: The people who told the torturers that it was acceptable to torture were acting in good faith and trying to protect the country, so they should not be prosecuted.

This is the same kind of argument given by any dictator, autocrat, tyrant, or sadist, that they were doing it for the “greater good”, to “defend the country against its enemies”, to “save lives”. This argument was again rejected at the Nuremberg trials where the top leadership of Nazi Germany was found guilty of war crimes for just setting policy and issuing orders. Hermann Goering said that the concentration camps were necessary to preserve order: “It was a question of removing danger.” This argument was rejected, and even those who merely gave the orders were sentenced to death. It can well be argued that the people who are in command positions and give such orders are more culpable than the lower ranks that carried them out, though the latter are not excused from culpability.

Noam Chomsky and Tom Englehardt point out that the people who excuse US torture practices on the grounds of ‘saving the country from attacks’ never seem to consider the logical extensions of that argument.

There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information – the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same argument, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986, after shooting down his plane delivering aid to U.S.-supported Contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty, and then sent him back to the U.S., as they did. Instead, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny, impoverished country under terrorist attack by the global superpower.

By the same standards, if the Nicaraguans had been able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, John Negroponte, then U.S. ambassador in Honduras (later appointed as the first director of national intelligence, essentially counterterrorism czar, without eliciting a murmur), they should have done the same. Cuba would have been justified in acting similarly, had the Castro government been able to lay hands on the Kennedy brothers. There is no need to bring up what their victims should have done to Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and other leading terrorist commanders, whose exploits leave al-Qaeda in the dust, and who doubtless had ample information that could have prevented further “ticking bomb” attacks.

Such considerations never seem to arise in public discussion.

The documentary Standard Operating Procedure (which I have not been able to see as yet) apparently argues that the low-level soldiers who carried out the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were merely scapegoats for the higher ups, cynically blamed for every wrong that happened while those who set the policy and encouraged these acts escaped. All the Bush administration principals discussed torture in detail so that they cannot now claim ignorance and conveniently put the blame on lower ranking ‘bad apples’.

The Nuremberg principle that leaders ‘acting in good faith’ should not escape punishment for the acts that result from their orders was further reinforced in article 2, section 2 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” This is about as unequivocal a rejection of the ‘good faith’ or ‘extreme circumstances’ excuses as one is likely to find.

We did not accept this argument of imminent danger to justify the authorization of torture by Nazi leaders, we would not accept such a defense from (say) North Korean leaders, and we should not accept it from US leaders.

POST SCRIPT: The frightened and dangerous clown

I have been bemused by the media paying such respectful attention to the ravings of Dick “Vice President for Torture” Cheney. Josh Marshall gives an excellent evaluation of him and why his utterances should be mercilessly mocked.

This is an extremely gullible man who has just come off being the driving ideological force in an administration that most people can already see produced more fiascos and titanic, self-inflicted goofs than possibly any in our entire history. By any standard the guy is a monumental failure — and not one whose mistakes stem in some Lyndon Johnson fashion from tragic overreach, but just a fool who damaged his country through his own gullibility, paranoia and bad judgment. Whatever else you can say about the Cheney story it ain’t Shakespearean.

So as we see the big reporters trying to put him on some sort of equal footing with President Obama today, let’s remember that the great majority of Americans see Dick Cheney, accurately, as a clown. And mockery isn’t just the most effective but also the most morally apt response to the man.

I have always thought that Cheney is a very frightened man, something that Marshall and other commentators miss, perhaps because they have been taken in by Cheney’s tough guy talk. His entire life history, from dodging fighting in Vietnam by getting five deferments to building a secure and secret underground bunker to hide in, are all clear signs of someone who lives in fear. It is the combination of fear and power that made him so dangerous.

The words that William Shakespeare put in the mouth of Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene II) describe Cheney perfectly:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

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