On torture-1: Torture is just flat-out wrong

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Some of you might have heard of the case of two American journalists who are to stand trial in North Korea for having entered the country illegally on March 17, 2009. They are accused of committing acts that were hostile to that country.

It was revealed that the two had confessed to being spies for the US and had entered North Korea in order to gain information to aid a military attack on that country. The confessions came after the two journalists had been subjected to solitary confinement, waterboarded repeatedly, kept in sleep-deprived and stress positions for days on end, confined naked in a small box with insects allowed to crawl all over them, and repeatedly slammed against walls, a process known as ‘walling’.

When the US protested against this treatment of its citizens, arguing that such acts constituted torture and were a gross violation of international laws and treaties and that the confessions thus obtained were inadmissible as evidence, the North Korean government stated that President Kim Jong Il had personally authorized the actions and their Justice Department has said that all these methods had been deemed to be legal, especially in light of the imminent threat to the nation’s security because of the hostile attitude of the US towards North Korea.

This urgency required them to act quickly to get information from the captives to find out US plans and defend themselves against an attack. They said that the captured people were not uniformed soldiers and hence were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva conventions, and that they had been declared to be ‘enemy combatants’, not prisoners of war or civilians. The North Korean government claimed that everyone who participated in what they referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was justified in these actions and so no action would be taken against them and they would oppose any international tribunal as well. They claimed that not only were these methods proper and legal because they had been authorized by the president and his legal advisors, but that they had also been successful, as evidenced by the fact that no attack had occurred so far.

As I hope most readers realize, only the first of the above four paragraphs is based on fact. I concocted the other three so as to make a point, because it is time once again to revisit the question of torture. I hate to do it because it is a disgusting topic and the very fact that we have to even debate whether it should be allowed shows how low we have sunk. I would have thought that it should be clear to any civilized person who claims to adhere to accepted principles of morality and ethics and law that torture is wrong and should not be allowed or condoned.

Almost everyone would be appalled at the treatment described above if it had actually being done to the American journalists now under captivity in North Korea, and would unhesitatingly reject these kinds of justifications for torture as the kinds of blatantly self-serving excuses that are routinely offered up by brutal regimes to justify the appalling treatment of prisoners in those countries. Yet these are the very same arguments given used to justify the actions taken by the US government in its torturing of detainees.

But thanks to the collusion of our media and some sections of the opinion-making classes in academia and the media and politics, what is a clear ethical issue has been made to seem difficult and complex, with those who seek to excuse torture when done by the US trying to occupy the moral high ground.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking “excessive” measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they — Americans — are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia’s four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness. Freedom is on the March.

[T]hose who view American Torture as a fascinating moral dilemma over which Serious People publicly agonize — as Drezner put it: “if you’re a national security person, you don’t care about the legal niceties . . . it is a complicated question; it’s not cut and dried” — have actually convinced themselves that their refusal to make clear, definitive judgments is a hallmark not only of their moral superiority, but of their intellectual superiority as well. Only shrill ideologues and simpletons on either side believe that the torture question is “cut and dried.” They actually believe that their indecisive open-mindedness on such clear moral questions is a sign of their rich and deep complexity, even though it’s nothing more than an adolescent inability to assess the world through any prism other than their own immediate reflexive desires and self-interest.

Ultimately, though, the reason leaders torture is irrelevant. It’s one of those few absolute taboos, and it’s almost as immoral to seek to dilute that taboo by offering motive-based mitigations as it is to engage in it in the first place.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on ASU

Arizona State University must have expected some backlash from its statement that Barack Obama was not worthy of receiving an honorary degree when he delivered the commencement speech yesterday. But they may have not bargained on receiving the full Jason Jones treatment.

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