Sunday, May 3, 2009

Torture Won't Go Away

When I first started my blog back in December I reviewed Jane Mayer's, The Dark Side.Since then official documents have been trickling out that point to the truth of her findings. The debate rages on.

I quote one of the memos adopted by the Department of Defense in January, 2002. This will be followed by two responses to the torture question raised by the Birmingham News' blog. After these responses you will see my Opinion piece from the front page of the Editorial section of the May 3, 2009 The Birmingham News.

"The use of stress positions...Use of the isolation facility for up to 30 days...Extensions beyond the initial 30 days must be approved...Deprivation of light and auditory stimuli...The detainee may also have a hood placed over his head during transportation an questioning...The use of 20 hour interrogations...Removal of all comfort items (including religion items)...Removal of clothing...Forced grooming (shaving of facial hair)etc...Using detainees individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress...The use of scenarios designated to convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him and/or his family...Exposure to cold weather or water...Use of a wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation."

Blog responses: "The president will show you all that the best ways to extract information from a terrorist is with a limp-wristed pat on the back and a smile. Show 'em the ivories, Obama."

"Our worst fears have come true. All he people we used to beat up in school are now running this country. They're trying to commit a mass murder/suicide on all of us."

And now my column from the paper...

Torture. We’ve heard that word a lot lately. Newly released documents give us embarrassing facts about how we have treated terror suspects since 9/11. We are told that a multitude of photographs documenting our government’s practices toward the enemy are forthcoming.

So the great debate is on. What do we do about what some call “enhanced techniques?” Have they helped procure valuable information that could protect us from our enemies? Have we gone too far? Or is this torture debate simply another chance for Democrats and Republicans to shoot at one another?

Jane Mayer, a writer with impeccable credentials, has written about our government’s recent policies on torture. She calls her book, The Dark Side. She connects the dots of the slow process of beginning to embrace torture as the stated policy of our country. She charges that “the war on terror evolved into a war on American ideals.”

Following September 11th our whole country was gripped with fear. In a fever of fear and anxiety the settled foundations seemed to shake. We all worried about other attacks. Strange words like Anthrax and Orange alerts slipped into our vocabulary. Rage gripped us all. Our national leaders responded with a new plan to protect us. If we could round up the culprits, squeeze information out of those captured, our country would be safer from further attacks.

So in a climate of national fear secret decisions were made at the highest levels of our government. Their conclusions took us down a road we have rarely walked down in our history. But we must be fair to the Bush administration. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Andrew Jackson treated Native Americans as less than human. President Roosevelt imprisoned Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. To these dark chapters we could add the nation‘s cruelty toward African Americans. One wonders what future generations will say about our response to gays and immigrants.

Knowing all of this, the historian, Arthur Schlesinger said of the Bush’s administration’s policy on torture: No position taken has done more damage to our American reputation around the world—ever." Mayer points out that the revision of rules in our treatment of our enemies was a dramatic break with the past.

In 1775 when American was waging war for independence against Britain, George Washington said that this new land would not follow the example of England at that time. "Treat (the enemy) with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren…Provide everything necessary for them on the road.”

After the traumas of Nazi Germany were revealed the United States joined with 150 other countries in 1949 to sign the following document: "Neither physical nor mental torture nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatsoever.” Even in the most trying of times Republican and Democratic administrations have stood by this pledge.

What are we to do with all this newly released information? Should we let the issue settle down and go about our work? Perhaps say that the subscribed rules do not apply in a time of grave crisis? Or should we establish some bipartisan Commission that would investigate this matter and let the American people read the findings for themselves.

Our new President has resisted appointing a commission to investigate torture. His reasoning is sound. With the problems of economy, job loss, foreclosures, war and heath care—can we add the issue of torture to this list? The rule of law cannot be trivialized or ignored.

Whatever choices we make in debating torture, we owe the world an apology for the way we have mistreated many during these troublesome days. We have not lived up to our own standards. We also need to censure whoever drafted and carried out these terrible decisions. Ignoring important documents like the Geneva Convention cannot be an option. Consequently we need to recommit ourselves to the rule of law which has been our standard since our beginnings.

Frederick Nietzsche once warned that,"He who does battle with monsters needs to watch out lest he in the process becomes a monster himself." Learning from our painful mistakes may not only make us a better people but will send a powerful message to our friends and enemies around the world.


  1. You are so right, Roger. When we torture others, we have nothing of Jesus in us. When we accept torture for any reason, we do not abide in God.

  2. I understand that Obama does not want the torture issue and the investigation and prosecution of those responsible to consume his presidency. But, if a country had knowingly and openly tortured our soldiers and our citizens, wouldn't we scream for justice?