I would like to thank my accommodating opponent, Alan Ryan, for agreeing to debate an issue that we Americans and British--indeed the entire international community--find staring us straight-away in the face, the subject of torture, and whether its use is ever justified. Alan and I have agreed to debate this so we both may learn. It is my hope the thoughtful reader will as well. Thank you also to Eddie, Big_Bear_Scot, and daewoo for making the time commitment to serve as judges. Special thanks to JPSartre12 for moderating.
Let me begin by saying the idea of torture is as abhorrent to me as I’m sure it is to you. It conjures up images of unspeakable human suffering and evil practitioners; of dark, damp dungeons where forced confessions are wrought from broken spirits only to gain relief from excruciating anguish. It is small wonder the practice horrifies much of the civilized world, with Israel perhaps being the only democracy admitting to a policy which sanctions the use of torture in specific instances.
Yet, the practice is still quietly used by many of these nations, including the U.S. Why? Because torture has sometimes proven to be an effective way of gathering life-saving, time-sensitive intelligence where no other viable alternative is available.
We are justified in using it in this unprecedented war on terrorism. The enemy’s tactics demand it.
I am simply advocating a realistic policy.
We in America have a quaint notion of torture. Our current policy is something like this: We believe in, indeed champion, human rights. Torturing is not conducive to human rights, therefore we cannot condone torture.
But may I state the obvious: We have and we should continue using coercive techniques against certain captured terrorists in limited, well-defined circumstances. We must admit to it, we must examine why we do it, and when we do it, or else we will remain hypocrites awaiting the next scandal to erupt. I intend to spell out exactly what those limited, well-defined circumstances are during the course of this debate.
Sadly, what the world’s perception of this practice is will be immortalized by the picture of the hooded Iraqi prisoner standing atop a crate, electrical wires connected to his limbs and genitals. Our reaction here at home to that image and others was one of combined shock and horror, that a few out-of-control, sado-masochistic MP’s could disgrace and dishonor our country. Yet those in the intelligence-gathering community instantly recognized that the picture was a “smoking gun” that implicated much more than a couple low-level MPs. This was a well-known torture tactic (The Vietnam) obviously implemented by experienced superiors knowledgeable in coercive techniques. How far up the chain of command? It can likely be traced to the memo from then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales in which he countenanced certain tactics for obtaining information from al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners suspected of possessing crucial knowledge about terrorist plans and/or secret cells.
The Abu Ghraib episode is indicative of two things: first, physical and psychological coercion spilled over into Iraqi POW’s because of the effectiveness of the intelligence being obtained at Guantanamo Bay; but second, an absence of a reasoned, coherent policy from the highest levels led to poorly-supervised abuses.
Let me repeat this point. The abuses at Abu Ghraib were due to our inability or unwillingness to consider a reasoned policy even when the moral calculus demands that torture be allowed to protect innocents.
In response to the Abu Ghraib scandal, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduced an amendment to a military appropriations bill which would ban “cruel, inhuman, or denigrating” treatment of any and all prisoners by any agent of the US. The stampede was on. It overwhelmingly passed the Senate, with little debate. Members of the House began clamoring to be the first to go on record as being against torture, and proudly and loudly passed the Senate’s version. The White House caved in to the reality. It appears the U.S. now has an anti-torture bill--a case study in the farcical world of absolutism--with nary a voice raised to address the reality.
The effect of the anti-torture amendment has been to allow our politicians a moment of self-sanctification, of public piety, while hog-tying our hands against criminals of the most deplorable kind.
The job of our government, from what we can surmise from our representative’s actions, is not first and foremost to protect its citizenry, but to teach morality lessons.
But in another case study--this one from speaking out of both sides of one's mouth--the very person responsible for this amendment, Senator McCain, was very recently quoted as saying that in some cases of suspected terrorists, “You do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it.”* This will not do. His amendment has expressly forbidden any and all torture, by any and all persons, under any and all circumstances!
Since Abu Ghraib happened because we refuse to adopt, let alone discuss, a realistic policy, further scandals await us. The issue is staring us straight-away in the face, and we are blinking. It is no way to run a democracy. It is no way to run a war on terrorism.
It is my contention that we must have this discussion that our political leaders will not.
In this debate I wish to examine when the use of torture is appropriate, to whom coercive physical and psychological practices should be applied and (as importantly) who must never be subjected to it, and who should be ultimately responsible for administering it. In doing so I hope to successfully argue the affirmative to the following:
Resolved: The use of torture should be a tool in the war on terrorism.
But before that examination I will first pause and allow my worthy opponent an opportunity to make his opening remarks.
* Newsweek magazine. November 21, 2005. [I]The Debate Over Torture[I] by Evan Thomas and Michael Hirsch