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Torture on, patriots

James Dechant | Monday, March 10, 2008

The House and the Senate presented the President with a bill last week that would have prevented American intelligence agencies, specifically the CIA, from using certain techniques of prisoner interrogation which many foreign countries and human rights groups have labeled torture. One criticized technique is waterboarding, a method where interrogators stretch a prisoner on his back and elevate his feet, gag his mouth with cloth or plastic film, and pour water onto his face. Waterboarding induces gagging, simulates the sensation of drowning, and gives the fear of imminent death. President Bush quickly vetoed the bill, sending a clear signal that the United States will allow torture when and where it deems fit.

The sanction of waterboarding puts us in the proud ranks of interrogators from the Spanish Inquisition, Pinochet’s Chilean regime, and the Khmer Rouge, all of whom used the technique or variations thereof. The President tried to draw attention away from waterboarding, pointing out the bill “would not simply ban one particular interrogation method” but “would eliminate all the alternative procedures we’ve developed to question the world’s most dangerous and violent terrorists.”

The President is correct: the bill would ban any technique not found in the U.S. Army Field Manual. Those secret, unlisted techniques (all of whose effectiveness remains disputed) include being made to remain standing for exorbitant lengths of time, undergoing slaps to the belly, and standing naked in cold cells while being drenched. The Bush administration insists the U.S. does not practice torture and tries to sanitize such methods by calling them “enhanced interrogation techniques.” That dark euphemism cannot disguise the fact that waterboarding is designed to psychologically ravage prisoners (who may or may not have received a trial, given current U.S. policy) with the goal of extracting information. The CIA actually prohibits waterboarding presently and claims not to have used the technique since 2003, but the President wants to leave the option on the table. The consent of the President and Attorney General in specific cases could allow for its use.

The President who condones all this once staked his candidacy on promises to clean up Washington. He vowed to restore dignity to government. But if we are truly to be a nation of moral dignity acting on our principles, then our policies must reflect our character. By permitting even the chance that the CIA might use torture, we effectively give ourselves the power to choose when another human being suffers. We make ourselves the ultimate moral authority.

Supporters of this abhorrent policy eat up a masculinized vision of American justice and portray themselves as infinitely more pragmatic than those who oppose torture. They think they alone accept the “tough reality” of our current military situation and understand the valuable information torture can yield. But tell me who is more realistic: “bleeding-heart liberals” who believe we can foil terrorists without resorting to inhumane methods and compromising our morality, or “freedom-loving patriots” who buy into the action-hero image of Jack Bauer squeezing out that necessary clue just in the nick of time by a willingness to use methods outside the law? Please excuse me if I do not buy into the pragmatic argument.

Bush’s veto centers on the proposition that our safety rests on not revealing our hand. “It is vitally important,” he said, “that the CIA be allowed to maintain a separate and classified interrogation program.” Otherwise, militant organizations can train themselves to resist acknowledged techniques, such as the nineteen outlined in the Army Field Manual. The amount that a terrorist can prepare himself for interrogation is doubtful, and such second-guessing still does not morally justify the techniques, yet this argument actually contains some logic. Interrogation can reveal information; terrorists resist interrogation when they know techniques beforehand; therefore, keep a few secret methods in reserve.

Nevertheless, the argument is fundamentally flawed, and most certainly bereft of the morality to which we aspire. Its problem lies in a dogmatic adherence to the accepted discourse of resolution, a discourse with conflict built in. To be clearer: the desire to keep our arsenal of anti-terrorist methods perpetually one step ahead of the enemy anticipates, in its very nature, the continued existence of conflict. It does not allow for a way out of the confrontational cycle. This mode of thinking assumes that “might makes right” and that our military superiority must precede our moral justification. First we kill the bad guys, then we show everyone how virtuous we are. It precludes the possibility of a non-violent solution to our hostilities. Bush’s veto symbolizes the broad renouncement of diplomacy and locks us into an endless contest of strength.

If we wish to fully commit ourselves to accepting an international leadership role then we must reject the use of secret torture techniques on any prisoner, terrorist or otherwise. We must also abandon the testosterone-driven, pulp-fiction-born notion that such techniques are the best defense against an unavoidable reality. Rather than resign ourselves to an endless cycle of conflict, we must look beyond the violent discourse of military superiority, become better than our enemies, and set a moral example for the world.

James Dechant is a senior English and Theology major. Questions, comments, and rude remarks can be sent to him at jdechant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.