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Posted by on Apr 23, 2009 in War | 8 comments

On Torture

I don’t have a whole lot to add to the discussion of the torture memos that doesn’t echo what has already been said. Of the two debates currently taking place about the implications of the memos—one about whether preventing another terrorist attack justifies torture and another about whether or not to bring those responsible to justice—I am only really interested in the latter.

To borrow a quote from On Torture, a compilation of essays about torture that I’m currently reading: Ariel Dorfman writes that the moral and practical arguments against torture are myriad, but “I cannot bring myself to use them, for fear of honoring the debate by participating in it.” I’m not one to view the world in terms of black and white or refuse to hear opposing viewpoints, but I’m frankly not interested in debating “ticking time bomb” rationales for institutionalized cruelty. I’m with Shep Smith.

As for the second issue, whether to “move forward” or pursue potentially divisive prosecutions, I again borrow from On Torture, this time from an essay by Rebecca Wittmann:

There is a lesson to be learned here about the tendency, in democratic societies, to condemn only the most extreme perpetrators of violence and torture and to turn a blind eye to the system that created them. Why do we accept the message that the US government is horrified by these actions, when we have proof that they were deeply involved? Perhaps the problem lies with our inability to accept our own responsibility for bringing into office people capable of ordering such barbarities…

We desperately want to believe that the laws of our country are being defined, applied, and upheld in a humane and moral way—after all, the laws of a democratic society are supposed to and generally do reflect the will of the people—and we show this through our tacit acceptance of the decisions and pronouncements of our lawmakers.


Ta-Nehisi Coates raises the point that, if Obama isn’t willing to press forward with prosecutions, it is at least in part because the people aren’t pressing him to press forward. Why not? Is it that we (the people) and they (the potential prosecutors) don’t want to accept our own share of the responsibility? Culpability stretches across party lines, after all. Or is it just that we’re desensitized to the brutality of what was done? Or that we can dismiss it as an anomaly rather than a systemic failure?

The picture here is bigger than just torture. Again, I return to Wittmann’s essay:

The decision to support war will always, ultimately, be a decision to support war crimes. It makes no sense to imagine that torture is only the provenance of a few “bad apples”—it is a fundamental elemnt of war in which “we” attempt to understand, undermine, and eradicate “them.” To relegate torture to the margins, to the exceptional, and to the crime of a few sadists is to willfully ignore the nature of war.

Torture is being debated in a vacuum, strangely detached from war itself. As much as I appreciate efforts by the likes of Andrew Sullivan or Christopher Hitchens to expose the brutality of torture now, I have to wonder what they were thinking would happen when they enthusiastically supported the initial invasion of Iraq. Centuries of human history have taught us that whenever a major war is fought, women are raped, children are maimed and killed, civilians are driven from their homes, and people are tortured. Did they really think it would be different this time?

So, to answer the question, yes I think high-level decision makers responsible for torture should be prosecuted. Part of it is a desire for accountability—powerful people all too often have the luxury of “looking forward” while the rest of us have to account for our past actions. But the main reason I want to see justice is to plant a seed of doubt in the head of the next administration that considers “enhanced interrogation” or starting an unnecessary war. We need a vivid reminder that war is not just night-vision explosions and falling statues and good versus evil. Once the first bomb is dropped, war becomes a self-perpetuating maelstrom that stirs up the worst of humanity. Those that unleash it had better have a damn good reason for doing so.

Cross-posted at Ablogistan.

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