Monday, November 21, 2005

Torture Lite?

The United States is at a historic time right now. Vice-President Cheney is calling for a legalization of "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" -- sometimes called "torture lite". The justification pits liberty and security issues against one another. In other words, in order to preserve the security of the United States post 9-11, the argument goes, sometimes individual liberties have to be suspended. Two guest bloggers below, Victoria R., and Francis M offer their perspectives. The comic is from: images/ustortpics.jpg.

Torture Time by Victoria R.
Torture is the new pink. Lets face it, torture is used in more that 150 countries, criminals as well as criminal suspects have been subjected to torture in more than 130 countries, people have died as a result of torture in more than 80 countries, torture has been used against political prisoners in over 70 countries, torture has been used against non-violent demonstrations in over 70 countries (1) and these are just the cases that we know about.
On January 27th 2005, President Bush said, “torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that torture.” (2) Clearly, the times are changing. Not only is President Bush’s statement incorrect, but Vice President Cheney is currently trying to pass an initiative that would authorize cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners abroad, essentially promoting the use of torture by U.S. officials. (3)
The United States has always prided itself on being the most influential and powerful country in the world. So it is no surprise that “it has become the leader in the violation of human rights . . . As a society, we haven’t figured out what the rough rules are yet . . . It’s the law of the jungle. And right now we happen to be the strongest animal.” (2) The United States faces a new military threat, unlike one that we have ever seen. The emergence of rogue states with access to nuclear weapons as well as terrorists with global aims have rivaled the existing world order and has created the need for a new foreign policy.
In 1998 Congress passed legislation that made it illegal to “expel, extradite or otherwise effect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believe the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Though when extraordinary rendition, a secret program created during the Clinton administration was created, the legislation was overridden. After 9/11 extraordinary rendition was the clear solution to dealing with terrorists. In fact, it was originally created to “detect, disrupt, and dismantle terrorist operations” (2) so what better policy could there be to deal with suspected terrorists? The United States has perfect allies to be our torture partners.
In 2002 the U.S. State Department human rights report for Egypt detailed detainee treatment: they were “stripped and blindfolded; suspended from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beaten with fists, whips, metal rods, or other objects; and doused with cold water and sexually assaulted.” (4) The United States had the intelligence regarding Egypt’s torture tactics and Egypt owes us for the large amount of foreign aid we give them, so it was a perfect situation.
Just like politics in the United States, torture has become bureaucratized. Instead of sending terrorists to other countries for them to do our dirty work and torture people who might have intelligence, we have decided to do it ourselves abroad. As more and more suspects were apprehended the US had to expand extradition locations as well as use resources like Guantanamo Bay, because after all, “once a detainees rights have been violated you absolutely can’t reinstate him into the court system.” (2) The United States could sleep easy because rough tactics have the possibility to save hundreds of lives. And even though “nine out of 10 people can be persuaded to talk with no ‘stress methods’ at all .. . [and] true of religiously motivated fanatics . . . that the ‘batting average’ might be lower: ‘perhaps six out of ten.’ [And] If you beat up the remaining four? ‘They'll just tell you anything to get you to stop." (5) Torture tactics for that one regular person or for those four religious fanatics are surely worth it for the possibility that lives may be saved.
Now that it has become public knowledge that extraordinary rendition is used and that enemy combatants are held and tortured at Guantanamo Bay, it is the next logical step for the United States to legalize the torture. Why have hidden black sites? Why not just come out and call them torture camps? “That’s the world these folks [terrorists] operate in. And its going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” (2) Vice President Cheney makes a very valid point here, if they’re doing it there is no reason that we shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t matter that they are a rogue, stateless Terrorists and we are a DEMOCRACY. I mean “why is it so hard for people to understand that there is a category of behavior not covered by the legal system? . . . Historically there were people so bad that they were not given protection of the laws.” (2) Terrorist fit this category so they shouldn’t be protected under the law. And if your suspected of terrorist acts you shouldn’t be protected either. And if you know something or know someone who is a terrorist you shouldn’t be protected either. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
But one must stop and ask at some point, if we continue our policy of doing whatever it takes regardless of international laws, human rights, and treaties we have signed and continue to torture as many people as it takes to win the war on terrorism that maybe, just possibly, a barrier is crossed. What makes us different from Egypt or other countries that are known to torture? That we don’t torture on our soil? Or that we don’t torture our own citizens? If the United States takes a good look at herself she might realize that she has found an enemy that has no regard for human rights and has no problem killing innocent people. And if she looks even closer she will find that she has become a state that tortures, even publicly promotes torture and that there is no difference between the ruthless enemy and us. We are own worst enemy.

(1) "Torture Worldwide: An Affront to Human Dignity." Amnesty International USA. 18 October 2000. Amnesty International. .
(2) Jane, Mayer. "Outsourcing Torture." The New Yorker February 14 2005: 105-121.
(3) "Vice President for Torture." Washington Post 26 October 2005: A18.
(4): "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices- 2002." U.S. Department of State. 31 March 2003. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
(5) Mark, Danner. "We Are All Torturers Now." The New York Times 6 January 2005.
Some good references:

Torture is Okay Sometimes, Francis M.

Throughout history torture has been used as a tool to get information or verbal knowledge out of an individual, and to this day we still use the same barbaric tactics. The question at hand is whether torture, torture lite, C.I.D (cruel, inhuman and degrading) H.C.I (Highly coercive interrogation) etc. are “sometimes” acceptable? The debate about torture has not been so much of a moral argument as it has been an empirical conclusion. Where to draw the line on the use of coercive force in interrogation is a pressing issue that has been endlessly debated.
The easiest solution is to band any kind of physical abuse. There are other tools and techniques that do not involve breaching our commitment to the Geneva Convention, the United National Convention Against Torture (ratified by the United States, with reservations, in 1994) and other no-torture agreements. There are other techniques that could be used that would not infringe on civil liberties, constitutional rights, and moral values. By signing agreements, we are making a statement of obligation to credence. When we sign than make our own ratification, our agreements are no longer legitimate.
The saying: “treat others the way you want to be treated” goes to show that if we are not capable of demonstrating the right way to treat people, then we should not expect it of others. Granted that this is just a notion that helps humans to harmonize and get along, but it also portrays a pretty accurate generality about human treatment. It is hard to say that if we treated every criminal or terrorist with equal liberties and rights that of a US citizen, that they would do the same. To justify this, we would be the bigger person in the end. In some senses, torture is stooping down to their level.
Even though torture has been around forever, there is still no evidence in which it has been proven to be 100% effective. If the administration is pushing for a “torture lite” resolution, at least there should be a compelling argument that it has been proven to be effective and efficient and that sufficient research has been conducted.
Public knowledge on this issue is also another major problem. If the public is not well versed on the issue, than do we just rely on the government to make these kinds of decisions for us. Mark Bowden argues
The public’s understanding of torture is too simplistic. While the ‘civilized would’ has condemned all forms of torture, Bowden explains that there are different kinds of torture- and different kinds of people who are subjected to it. There is a vast difference, Bowden writes, between using cattle prods to wring false confessions out of Chinese prisoners and using sleep deprivation and rough handling to get lifesaving information from captured terrorists. In fact, the word ‘torture’ does not even apply when interrogators employ only moderate physical and psychological pressure, Bowden argues; he and other prefer the term ‘coercion’.
This issue is tough to delineate a boundary and drawl a line through what is morally right and wrong. I do think that it is an obligation as a society as a whole to come to a conclusion and find some sort of moral honesty. The public awareness is lacking and this issue needs to be addressed more seriously.

Another problem that torture presents is that it just may be a “shortcut for a lazy or incompetent investigator.” It seems as though whenever torture is convenient, it maybe used, for example after 9-11. “The public is going to respond to the current circumstances. If Americans are angry, they’re going to favor torture. If they’re feeling comfortable and secure, they’re going to be against torture”
The easiest solution is to just ban torture or any form of it all together. If any kind of physical abuse is going to occur, than it should be at the risk of the inflictor and that should be the final ruling. Finding a balance between what is right and wrong is too complicated and there will always be violations. “If you open that door, then there’s no stopping it. Because everyone will use torture; everyone will assume that his or her circumstance is justified. As long as torture is banned, you can only employ it as your own risk.”

Zagorin, Adam (2005) “Haunted by ‘The Iceman’”,Time Madazine, 21 November, pp. 38-46.
“The Truth About Torture”, The Atlantic Monthly, September 11, 2003, pp 1-6.
Lelyveld, Joseph (2005) “Interrogating Ourselves”, The New York Times Magazine, 12 June, pp. 1-12
Beatty, Jack (2005) “Fighting Terrorism with Torture”, The Atlantic Monthly, 27 May, pp.1-2.


chris b said...

I think that you Blog is very much on point. I find it particularly good because you have taken a big step and said what many people think but are afraid to say publicly. Torture does in fact does happen around the world. The U.S. uses appropriate means to extract information from those that are determined to be possessing pertinent information: “We use lawful capabilities to collect vital information and we do it in a variety of unique and innovative ways, all of which are legal and none of which are torture." (Porter Goss, CIA Director). Desperate times do call for desperate measures – fighting an enemy that will stop at nothing to kill us and our society requires “innovative” approaches. While there are legal issues in the use of torture (which we are all familiar with), “unique and innovative ways” provides a legal manner of bypassing restrictions on what can and cannot be done to detained persons.
Power. It’s what everyone wants but only a few have. The United States is arguably the most powerful nation in the world right now. Since the U.S. sits at the top and it is in our national interest to maintain this position in the international system we must be willing to act in the best interest of the state. If that means using “coercive” techniques, then I am all for it. From a human rights perspective this is a troubling statement – and I realize that.
From past discussions many people have voiced their strong opinions that the U.S. should not be using these techniques and that the U.S. made a bad decision to do so. Yet if we were in another country (say China for example) we would not even be having this discussion because it would not be allowed in the first place. Those of you who harbor great distaste for American politics, the nations leaders, and the country in general are free to have those opinions and also free to leave. Yet there are many things that people love about this nation, one of the biggest is the ability to speak freely without fear of retribution for their opinions (which cannot be done in many nations) and another is opportunity to better ones individual situation (economically, etc.). I might be biased because I am an American, but I think that the United States of America is the best country in the world.
On a short tangent… U.S. citizens have the right of free speech, deriving from the Bill of Rights – rights that were won through warfare (a war where acts of torture were most likely committed by both sides).

Victoria R. said...

Chris B I think that you bring up some very valid points. I think that the issue with torture rests at what procedures we will use. Such practices that are considered cruel and degrading such as loud music or sleep deprivation are hardly comparable with waterboarding, rape, flaying (removal of the skin) ect. Some forms of torture change one's environment while other forms deal with inflicting pain to the body which are torture. I think that altering one's environment in extrememe manners could have the same ability to extract information than torture. Another issue regarding torture is the use of turth serums. Does this constititue torture? Should there be a hierarchy to the order that someone is interrogated for example try talking to them, use curel inhumane or degrading treatment then torture?

I also think that the legalization of torture is a huge issue. Is the United States doing this just to protect itself? It is a hard situation becuase once the United States has tortured or used cruel inhumane and degrading treatment on someone and they realease them it creates bad publicity. This leads to the United States not being able to release them for example one way is to take away detainees ability to request habeus corpus. This is clealy a very big issue becuase the United States can't afford to have people discuss the tactics used against them or make their human rights abuses completely public. Maybe if torture is legalized then at least once people are tortured they won't be detained forever. Unfortunately I have a pessimistic view that torture will not disappear so why not make it easier for torture victims?

Dr. D said...

The New York Times has an interesting editorial on the Jose Padilla terrorist case. He was held for 3 1/2 years without charge or due process of the law...he was accused of planning to explode an "dirty bomb" on the US -- of course that never materialized.
How can we criticize other countries for human rights abuses, like keeping "suspected" terrorists in jail for years without due process when we do it ourselves? We have lost all credibility.

Dr. D said...

Director of Torture?
A new Washington Post article on the types of torture techniques used by the CIA -- sorry-- not "torture" but just "cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. Read the article below...

Matt Colip said...

First, I think that the debate over legalizing torture in the name of national security is something that doesn't need to even be discussed. Torture doesn't work.....period. The argument is made that it forces people to spill information that they would otherwise not let out. Imagining myself being tortured, having enormous amounts of pain be inflicted on me time and time again with the stop button being spewing information, what's stopping me from giving false information? Honestly, how would anyone really know if the information I was giving was true or false?

Second, last summer I was in Africa doing aid work. During the last 3-weeks of my 10-week trip, my digital camera was stolen. An "investigation" was done and 5 people were arrested, one of whom was deemed more "informed" about the whereabouts of my camera than the others. All 5 of these people were beaten multiple times a day for information, many names were given as result and more people were arrested and beaten. The "more informed" individual had his leg tied off to inflict more pain on his body, still no legit information was given. In the end, these individuals were beaten and basically tortured, degraded on my account and my camera was never found. Nothing became of it and all leads were false. Torture simply doesn't work and it sickens me that it's even being debated in this country. We claim to condemn such acts abroad and we're debating legalizing it in our own country.... utter hypocrisy, no ifs, ands or buts about it. There is no excuse for legalizing torture. It's wrong!!!

I don't care how many more "times of change" we must go through throughout our existence, but we MUST always maintain the upper-hand with human rights. If we can't, no one can.

victoria said...

Torture over the whearabouts of a camera is clearly inappropriate and unjustifiable. Though what happens if you know that a suspect has information regarding a bomb that is about to go off and would kill hundreds of people- should that one person not be tortured, maintaing that their rights are more important then the unknowing future victims? Can one really say that torture shoud NEVER be used? I realize that it is a slippery slope from case to case once torture is ok in some situations, but I don't think it is possible to say that torture is never appropriate. When agregious acts are involved that threaten a large amount of innocent people, I think torture is justifiable.

Matt Colip said...


Torture should never be used. It doesn't gather useful information and destroys our credibility as a unique, human rights enforcing nation.

Interesting article to make my point:

victoria said...


You bring up a valid point, that torture is usually not an effective interrogation method, but there have been instances of sucess. Those these are small, some might say that the chance for information after all else has failed is worth it.

This article discusses cases where torture has gathered useful intelligence:

Futhermore torture sends a powerful message. I am not saying that this is right or it should be used like this, but torture can be an effective channel for some people.

Matt Colip said...


I think that the pro-torture case is so small, that it's not worth destroying our national credibility and value for all human rights in this country over. We can't throw all of those hardline values away to potentially threaten a few people, anger many more and devalue the human rights of those captured. We must maintain the higher ground for human rights, no matter what.

I feel that it's not right to "threaten" those who are against us but rather focus our efforts towards understanding why they are against us in the first place. Threats don't deter radicals only encourage them.

Anonymous said...

Chris B:
Does being the most powerful nation in the world come with the priviledge of trampling on foreign nationals' human rights? You have this particular opinion becuase you are American. In some sense, you are in a fortunate position. The United States did not reach this position through a series of miracles. Other nations have been exploited to an extent to gain this wealth (as Iraq is right now). I am always curious to see what American's think of the following question: Does being the most powerful nation in the world not include any responsibilty whatsoever? I'm not talking about going out of your way to be nice to people. But how about not abusing your position by treating foreign nations inhumanely?