Why the Nonchalance About Torture?

In the Name of God, the Subtle, the Loving

The debate over torture continues to rage since President Obama released the Justice Department memos that outlined the legal justification of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on detainees in U.S. custody. Many have decried the Administration’s move, claiming that it has made us less safe, and some have even gone as far as to claim that waterboarding is not torture.

On this last point, Marc A. Thiessen, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, cited Christopher Hitchens, who tried waterboarding himself, in his claim that it is not torture. Mr. Thiessen said on C-SPAN: “A common sense definition of torture is if you’re willing to try it to see what it feels like, it’s not torture.”

That’s interesting, because here is what Mr. Hitchens himself wrote about his experience in Vanity Fair in 2008: “You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it ‘simulates’ the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure.” He also added, ” if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote a powerful op-ed on April 26 in which he, convincingly, argued, “torture was a premeditated policy approved at our government’s highest levels; that it was carried out in scenarios that had no resemblance to “24”; that psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain; and that, in the assessment of reliable sources like the FBI director Robert Mueller, it did not help disrupt any terrorist attacks.”

Yet, short of a handful of pundits on both the right and left, I do not see wholesale outrage on the part of the American people for what was done in our name to suspects detained in U.S. custody. Although, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 46% of Americans feels waterboarding and other “aggressive techniques” are never justified, and a full 71% of Americans feel waterboarding is torture, most Americans do not even want an investigation into the full extent of the torture. In that poll, 62% of Americans do not think Congress should hold hearings to investigate the Bush Administration’s treatment of detainees. Only 33%, in fact, do want such an investigation.

In addition, a Pew poll showed that even religious Americans are more likely to justify torture of terrorism suspects.

Why is this the case? Perhaps Americans want to “move forward” and not be “stuck on the past.” Yet, how can we learn from our mistakes if we do not know the extent of what the United States did to detainees in its custody? As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Yet, I am concerned that there is something else at play here. Perhaps there are no widespread “torture tea parties” across the county is because “they” were tortured. Imagine if law enforcement in this country, – acting on the insistence of the torture apologists that waterboarding is not torture – began to subject detainees to waterboarding?

There would be a diffuse hue and cry, and rightly so. In fact, there are currently lawsuits pending against the Chicago Police Department for allegations of torture. Yet, if the ones being waterboarded are the architects and masterminds of the greatest act of mass murder in American history, who cares?

I must admit, I struggle with this issue, even though I am dead set against the torture of any detainee in U.S. custody. We are in a war; we do fight against an enemy with no moral scruples whatsoever; we do fight with people who would kill and maim millions of innocent people if they had the wherewithal. It is very tempting, when one of these barbarians are captured, to subject him to the harshest of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a matter of revenge.

Yet, when has evil ever played fair? The true muster of a civilized people is not how they act when everything is fine and safe, but how they act under duress. As President Obama said in his 100 Day news conference, “part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world, is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.”

If, in response to a truly vicious and brutal attack on our people, we respond by stooping to the level of our enemy, then what does that say about us? We are a better people than that. The Quran says, “Never let the hatred of a people toward you move you to commit injustice…” (5:8) Christ said: ” Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven in perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Shouldn’t we, as Americans, be, therefore, sons of our Father in heaven? Shouldn’t we, as Americans, be, therefore, perfect?


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