In Our Name

November 2005


There must be a special level of hell reserved for moralists who admit that something is wrong, except when we are the ones who want to do it. Torture and the inhumane treatment of incarcerated people is an excellent example of this double moral standard.

Ask any ten year old who ever went to Sunday school: "If something is wrong, should you ever do it?" This is not a difficult question, but it seems that the answer is something that the current administration and many Senators and members of Congress get wrong.

What is torture? The Cambridge Dictionary of English defines torture as: "the act of causing great physical or mental pain in order to persuade someone to do something or to give information, or as an act of cruelty to a person." Most of us have seen the pictures and heard stories of people incarcerated by our government in Iraq and Guantanamo. We have heard accounts of what our government politely refers to as "rendition," -- the kidnapping of people in one foreign country and the transporting of them to another country where they are routinely abused and tortured. Under the law, it does not matter whether you abuse your prisoner with your own hands, or invite a professional torturer to do the dirty work while you look away, you are guilty of cruel and unusual treatment of this person.

For our current President to state that "we do not torture..." is very reminiscent of one of our past Presidents saying "I did not have sex..." George W must have some other definition of torture in mind with which I am not familiar.

Vice-President Cheney, on the other hand, comes right out and says that we should be allowed to torture people we don't like and that there is nothing wrong with that. He says that the ends justify the means. He says that anyone we suspect of complicity with terrorists deserves torture. Cheney evidently operates under some other kind of morality with which I am not familiar.

Arch-conservatives used to be fond of the phrase "slippery slope." They used this phrase any time someone suggested that our government do something new to address some problem or issue. Their argument was that once you permitted the government to bend the law (especially th Constitution) even ever so slightly, that you would open the flood gates for the worst kind of lawless oppression. Where are these people now? I would think they would be incensed that our administration was breaking the law -- for it is the law in these United States that the Geneva Conventions should be upheld and the Geneva Conventions are very clearly against torture and inhumane treatment of people in custody. Where is our latter-day Barry Goldwater to shout that when our government has a policy that it's ok to torture citizens of other nations, we are inviting them, sooner or later, to torture our own citizens?

And quite aside from any question of moral permissibility, torture does not work. Ask people who have been tortured. They will tell you that torture will make any person say or do anything to make that torture stop. People say whatever they think their torturers want to hear. That is the nature of how torture affects people. To operate on the basis of information arrived at through torture is a very risky tactic -- about as risky as relying on tarot cards or a ouija board. And is torture one of those things that is supposed to win the "hearts and minds" of people? It is bad enough now that they blame us for killing so many of their friends and family members. Torturing their friends and family members will not incline them in our favor.

But back to the moral question: when is it ok to do something that you know is wrong? Is there something someone can do to you, or threaten to do to you, that will transform something that is morally wrong into something that is right? Our laws make some exceptions for special circumstances. If someone puts a gun to your head and you struggle with them, the gun goes off, and the other man dies, we call that self-defense. But there is no system of law anywhere that allows you to grab a 17 yr old boy off the street, tie him up, bring him home, and torture him to reveal information about the plan you think his friends may have to rob your house. Our police are not allowed to do this either, regardless of how much proof they have of conspiracy to commit a crime. Only agents of our Federal government are so empowered, under the pretext of "preventing terrorism."

First they came for the terrorists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a terrorist.
Then they came for the criminals
and I did not speak out
because I was not a criminal. Then they came for the dissidents
and I did not speak out
because I was not a dissident.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

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