Why Care About Torture?

February 2015

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Why should we care about the torture issue?

Like genocide, torture is a crime that defines a society.  Certainly, the American Founders thought so, which is why they banned “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Bill of Rights.  All Enlightenment thinkers coincided on that torture was one of the barbaric practices that earned the Dark Ages its name.  Starting with the French Revolution, all modern European societies have made the banning of torture a bedrock principle of civilized society.

In the life-or death struggle against the Nazis and then the Communists during WWII and the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies stooped to assassination, concentration camps, and even atom bombing of civilians–but not torture.  One of the main U.S. claims against these totalitarian regimes was that they tortured–and we didn’t.  After these wars were won, it was a fitting capstone to America’s sacrifice and triumph that WWII veteran and U.S. Cold War leader Ronald Reagan led the U.S. to join 77 other countries to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture in 1988.  He called torture an “abhorrent practice”.

What makes torture so evil?  Because nothing else so directly opposes the core value of human dignity, on which our entire moral and political order is based.  According to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition that still underlies our modern society, we are made in the image of God.  To deliberately seek to break down the integrity of a human being who is completely in your power is the worst perversion conceivable.  War may under certain circumstances be a “necessary evil” (though this is a point on which some people disagree).  But with regard to torture, our society’s core moral tradition admits no exception:  In the words of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference, “Torture is ‘intrinsically evil’ and ‘can never be justified.’ Period.

Torture does not just destroy its victims, it corrupts its perpetrators.  Like all humans, torturers have a psychological need to look good in their own eyes, and justify their actions.   What begins as a “necessary evil”, excusable under exceptional circumstances, rapidly develops defenders eager to paint it as somehow virtuous, even heroic.  This is particularly so when torture is politicized.

We see just this moral decline in our own society’s experimentation with torture under the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11.  What had been a non-partisan consensus, that torture was un-American and unjustifiable, quickly became just another partisan issue.  Republican Party leaders, eager to claim that they would go farther than their Democratic opponents when it came to defending Americans from the terrorist threat, openly embraced the use of torture.  “I [am] a big supporter of water-boarding”, boasted former Vice-President Cheney on TV in 2010.

Unsurprisingly, ordinary Americans remained true to the tribal nature of their party allegiances.  In a December 2014 poll, just 21% of Democrats approved of the government’s use of water-boarding–but 60% of Republicans did.  This translates into a now-massive move among Americans overall toward approving of torture:  Now, 58% of Americans say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”

Today, the US is the only major Western democratic country with massive public approval of torture.  The same nation that led the world in eliminating torture in the 20th century now pioneers the cause of torture’s revival.  It’s as if Harry Potter in middle-age changed his mind about Voldemort, and brought him back to life.

That’s where our society is going. What about us?

When after World War II, investigators asked individual Germans about the Holocaust, many claimed that they had not known about what their government and fellow countrymen were doing to Jews:  They protested that, because they did not know, they should not be held responsible for the crimes committed in their name by the Nazi state.

The facts about our country’s recent infatuation with torture are available for all the see, in the recent Senate report (which is itself based primarily on CIA internal reports, and which was almost stifled at the last minute by the Obama Administration).  Do these facts admit of different interpretations than I have given above?  No doubt, they do.

What they do not admit is for anyone to pretend that they could not know, that they were not in some part responsible.

The minimum that we owe our civilization’s core moral tradition, the rest of the world, and our own consciences is to read the Senate report, and to grapple with the profound issues it raises about our country, and about ourselves.

It would be a pity to join the Death Eaters because we could not pull ourselves away for a few minutes from Snapchat.


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