Torture and American Democracy

April 17, 2009

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states (Article 5): “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” December 10, 2008, marked the sixtieth anniversary of that Declaration, to which the United States is a signatory.

Alas, it is now abundantly clear that the Bush administration did engage in torture in violation of this prohibition. The International Committee of the Red Cross had secretly investigated U. S. interrogation practices against prisoners and concluded some time ago that torture was used against suspected terrorists. The Justice Department has now confirmed the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

These practices took place in secret prisons maintained by the United States in Pakistan, Dubai, Thailand, and elsewhere. They included waterboarding and other illegal methods—practices for which the United States prosecuted Japanese military interrogators for war crimes after World War II. Waterboarding involves the pouring of water on a cloth held over the prisoner’s face so that he cannot breathe, simulating drowning. Other practices involve forcing prisoners to stand in painful positions for days with their hands chained to a bar above them, keeping suspects awake for as long as eleven days; locking them in dark, cramped boxes, and/or injecting insects into the box to frighten them; forced nudity; slamming them against the wall; and dousing prisoners with very cold water (41° F).

These methods of torture were used by totalitarian dictatorships before and during World War II, and were widely condemned by the civilized world. We now find that they were used by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team with impunity, in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. These acts were   illegal and those who used or condoned them should be held accountable.

We often hear the argument: “What if” the terrorists were going to detonate a nuclear bomb over Los Angeles or Washington? Should we not use torture on suspects to extract information? Well, perhaps, in a clear-and-present-danger crisis situation – though even here, the seeming power of torture to extract information must be balanced against the possibility that using torture will only elicit false information. Still, the so-called “ticking bomb” argument surely cannot be used as a pretext to engage in any and all forms of reprehensible conduct. American democracy is based on laws and it is committed to the defense of human rights. The use of a doomsday scenario to justify any and all forms of bestial conduct is surely inadmissible. The main casualty of this whole sordid affair is American democracy itself, which is based on the ideals of liberty and respect for the principles of due process and justice. Our democracy has suffered great damage because of our tragic excursion into torture. The world will be watching to see how or if we make amends.