Some Thoughts on the Torture Report

Some Thoughts on the Torture Report December 11, 2014

ON TUESDAY, SENATE DEMOCRATS RELEASED DETAILS of the torture program authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration and perpetrated in the early years of last decade, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C. and New York in September 2001.

I downloaded the report from the Web and have not finished reading it — after a few pages, I felt sickened enough that I could not continue. I also felt very angry.

It used to be taken as axiomatic — a moral “given” — that torture is always and everywhere wrong, and can never be used for any purpose. That door was firmly marked by a consensus of civilized opinion, “Do not enter.” But the actions of the Bush administration opened that particular door.

Rather than present detailed arguments against torture, let me quote directly from the report:

Conditions at CIA detention sites were poor, and were especially bleak early in the program. CIA detainees at the COBALT detention facility were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste.

Lack of heat at the facility likely contributed to the death of a detainee. The chief of interrogations described COBALT as a ‘dungeon.’ Another senior CIA officer stated that COBALT was itself an enhanced interrogation technique.

Quick comment: Putting aside the euphemistic “enhanced interrogation techniques” and so on, I would like to point out that the previous paragraph describes how agents acting on behalf of the United States essentially tortured a man to death.

At times, the detainees at COBALT were walked around naked or were shackled with their hands above their heads for extended periods of time. Other times, the detainees at COBALT were subjected to what was described as a ‘rough takedown,’ in which approximately five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him outside of his cell, cut his clothes off, and secure him with Mylar tape. The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.

And lest you think that only people whose guilt was certain were subjected to torture:

Although CIA records include no requests or approval cables, Abu Hudhaifa was subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation. He was released because the CIA discovered he was likely not the person he was believed to be.

Then there’s the account of the use of anal rape to express “dominance” over a prisoner:

Chief of Interrogations (name redacted) also ordered the rectal rehydration of KSM [that’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, identified in the 9/11 Commission Report as the “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks”]  without a determination of medical need, a procedure that the chief of interrogations would later characterize as illustrative of the interrogator’s ‘total control over the detainee.

That’s as much as I could stand to read in the report, which is almost 500 pages long.

There is a long-standing principle in Catholic moral philosophy that the ends do not justify the means. Another way of putting it is that it is never permissible to do evil that good may come of it.

While Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did terrible evil on 9/11 and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans, that does not justify using techniques for which we hanged Japanese prison camp officials at the end of the Second World War.

There is a bit of dialogue from “A Man for All Seasons” that may lend some illumination on this dark subject:

William Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

Thomas More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

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  • LM

    Why is this surprising? This country was founded on the torture of swarthy “others,” and this is just more of the same. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. At least the CIA wasn’t brazen enough to make postcards of their handiwork.

  • “It used to be taken as axiomatic — a moral “given” — that torture is always and everywhere wrong, and can never be used for any purpose. That door was firmly marked by a consensus of civilized opinion, ‘Do not enter.'”

    Papal Bull Ad_Extirpanda published by Innocent IV, 1252
    Law 25.
    The head of state or ruler must force all the heretics whom he has in custody,
    provided he does so without killing them or breaking their arms or legs, as actual robbers and murderers of souls and thieves of the sacraments of God and Christian faith, to confess their errors and accuse other heretics whom they know, and
    specify their motives, and those whom they have seduced, and those who have lodged them and defended them,as thieves and robbers of material goods are made
    to accuse their accomplices and confess the crimes they have committed.

    • I meant, of course, in this country, and in the Church of the present and recent past, which has repented from the barbarism you describe.

      • Fair enough. And I actually agree with you, and the quote of A Man for All Seasons is very appropriate. I don’t believe we should ever allow the government to do unto others what we would not want the government to do for ourselves.

        There was a scene in Batman Begins when Bruce refuses to execute a prisoner. Raz Al Ghoul said “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.” Bruce answered, “That’s what makes it so important. It separates us from them.”

  • Brian Martin

    Quotes from John McCain
    “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” he said. “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.

    “Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”

    “Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”

  • Back in 2008 I wrote a blog post that contained this paragraph:

    So what of our Nation’s ‘torture policy’? One way to see this clearly, is to note that no one (other than an unrepentant sadist) sees torture as good in and of itself. It is necessary to suspend our sensibilities, keep it quiet and in the dark, (or record the act then destroy the recording) and hope for a benefit. Again, it overlooks the action and hopes for a good result. Putting any action under light is a great way to test it legitimacy. Even the horror of war is able to be viewed and reviewed. We honor our soldiers and commemorate great battles and struggles. But the act of torture…can we view it and pin medals on those who perform it? Torture simply cannot stand up to the light.

    Not only can we not view it…we can’t even say the word ‘torture’ without trying to sanitize it word into “enhanced interrogation technique”. While I’m very disturbed by this dark period (and I believe this practice will always find a small hole to hide in)…I’m grateful that some leaders had the courage and wherewithal to drag this scandal into the light and call it what it is.

  • Stuart Kenny

    :Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say you captured a pregnant women who knew where and when a bomb was going to go off. Would you waterboard her, knowing that you will likely cause her to have a miscarriage?

    Not to give away my answer, but I think that it is impossible to be pro-life and condone torture.

    “But waterboarding isn’t torture!” So, is it OK to not have an abortion, but to go to a clinic for an “induced miscarriage?” Can we oppose abortion but support induced miscarriages?

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