I, personally, am opposed to torture. I also consider the notion that water boarding, sleep deprivation, and similar “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not torture absurd. Whatever one cares to consider it when inflicted in a carefully controlled training situation, water boarding is most definitely torture when inflicted on an enemy not once, but 80, 90 or 100 times, by tormenters who are confident they will not be held to account for their deeds. Resistance to torture doesn’t have to be a moral decision, just a practical one. Nations that torture weaken themselves by playing into the hands of their enemies, handing them an effective propaganda tool. Anyone who was following the European media at the time the Abu Ghraib story broke knows how effective and damaging such propaganda can be. For democracies, at least, condoning torture carries a high political cost. The damage it does to the national security of a democracy by allowing its enemies to seize the moral high ground and by eliminating its own moral authority in the world greatly outweighs any plausible advantage that could be gained by it.
Individuals who support torture live in an imaginary world in which the victims are always their enemies, persons certainly guilty of terrorism or worse, regardless of whether they have had a trial or whether there is any plausible evidence against them. The principles embodied in the American Bill of Rights don’t matter, as long as their precious security is at stake. In the end, though, that security is a chimera. Those who believe that torture will only be applied to the “others,” never to themselves, live in a dream world. In the first place, nations that torture provide their enemies with justification for torture, putting their citizens, and especially their soldiers, at risk. In a world that condones torture, the idea that the old rule, “What goes around, comes around,” doesn’t apply is not only stupid, it is suicidal. In a world that condones torture, every individual is a risk.
History has demonstrated that the state is the most effective terrorist, just as it is the most effective killer. It was to protect us from the state as torturer and killer that or forefathers established prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, protections against arbitrary imprisonment, and all the rest of the freedoms we treasure for ourselves, and should treasure for others. The conservatives in the USA who cheer so loudly for “enhanced interrogation” are wringing their hands at the same time about the expansion of government power and what they perceive as the approach to socialism. If the state is really in danger of becoming so evil, is it wise to cheer so loudly for torture? What if the state really does become evil? What if it occurs to the leaders of that evil state to engage in the wholesale torture of those who, after all, were torture’s most zealous defenders? What? You think “It can’t happen here?” Was the history of the 20th century nothing but a bad dream? No, it wasn’t a dream. It was a reality that could happen here quite as well as it happened elsewhere. In such a world, our genuine security depends on standing by the principles we never should have abandoned in the first place, including rejection of torture.
Sometimes I can’t even believe we are having this debate. A bunch of religious fanatics gets lucky and kills 3000+ people, and we are suddenly in a “war,” and have to throw all our liberties out the window. Going on a decade later, we are still at “war,” and anything goes, as long as we can bamboozle ourselves into believing that our precious “security” requires it. It reminds one of the constantly warring states in Orwell’s “1984.” I suspect Orwell would have detected a very familiar ring in the arguments being fobbed off on us today to justify this constant state of “war.” We have over 25,000 firearm deaths every single year in the US, and over 40,000 traffic fatalities. Is anyone suggesting we throw out the Bill of Rights and introduce a police state because of that? Hundreds of thousands have died defending the liberties we are now supposed to casually discard because we are all so terribly threatened by the evil terrorists. What fine Americans we are, what brave defenders of the faith our fathers fought and died for! One successful attack, and all we can think of is crawling under a rock and bleating about our illusory “security.” One successful attack that in no way threatens our existence as a nation and, suddenly, we are drawing dire parallels with the need to suspend habeus corpus during the Civil War. What wimps we have become, what rabbits!
The right in the US really seems to have taken leave of its collective senses on this issue. They really seem to believe that the torturers will never turn on them, that they will somehow, against all odds, be immune to the disease they are so blithely promoting. The idea that the people who are given the authority to apply torture will always be philosopher kings, or, for that matter, are even likely to be capable of distinguishing those in the act of carrying out a nuclear attack from innocent civilians rounded up based on no or faint evidence is nonsense. History has proved it nonsense time after time. Those who condone torture have forgotten or never learned the lessons of history. Our founding fathers were well aware of those lessons. They didn’t suffer from our modern delusions about the benevolence and justice of the state as torturer. That’s why they took the stand they did. If we abandon their stand in pursuit of a hollow security we might as well give up the fight. We will have become the mirror images of the people we are fighting.
When one looks at the ideological divide in the US today on the matter of torture, one can only shake ones head. The right openly condones it. They give Nathan Hale speeches defending it, as if it were some kind of a holy cause. For them, no one can be truly “patriotic” who opposes it. For the left, it is just an ideological bludgeon that they find a convenient tool for attacking their enemies. One hears no reasoned arguments against torture. Instead, in place of reason one finds nothing but the usual pious posing from the “moral high ground.” In other words, they oppose torture more or less for the same reasons the Bolsheviks opposed it before 1917; because it is a useful political tool.