The Senate “Intelligence” committee report on how we treated the post-9/11 prisoners was released this past week and it dominated the news. Questions that occurred to me are what constitutes “torture” and when does “enhanced interrogation” cross the line? But then again does torture really need to be defined or is it expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention? Wouldn’t stressing a prisoner up to and including waterboarding be considered torture? Coercive techniques of any kind are expressly forbidden by the 1949 Geneva Convention.
I recall the Fox windbag Sean Hannity saying that waterboarding really wasn’t torture. Then someone challenged him to be waterboarded live on TV and of course he ignored the challenge.
The purpose of interrogation is to get information and it seems quite obvious that an unstressed individual isn’t going to divulge any information of value. So does playing a version of “good-cop/bad-cop” with prisoners constitute torture? I think one of the arguments justifying it is that “enemy combatants” are not really soldiers—more like criminals, and thus the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply. Anyway, according to the Geneva Convention it appears we should just forget about questioning prisoners altogether. Everyone who’s seen at least three war movies knows that captured soldiers need only give their name, rank and serial number.
John McCain, who was a victim of torture by the North Vietnamese, seems to think that we’ve engaged in torture, and given his experience he qualifies as an expert. However, what I’ve heard about the Senate committee is that it was comprised entirely of Democrats and that the report is pretty much a political hatchet job—another shot for the Dems at Bush, Cheney, Rummy and the Neo-cons. However, the CIA denies the allegations and maintains that the President and select members of Congress knew all along how we were treating the Al Qaida and Taliban detainees.
There does seem to be a lot of sanctimonious posturing on the committee and President’s part. One of his campaign promises was to do away with the prison camp at Guantanamo. But here we are over six years later and there are still men detained there. One disheartening aspect of the report and the public debate has to do with efficacy—as if torture’s okay so long as we get the info we need. The end justifying the means is not exactly a moral argument, and that noted paragon of morality Cheney saying it was justified would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.
In my book Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations I point out that torturing prisoners is a giving in to the temptation of the spirit of fear in seeking security—and that after 9/11 our country went more than a little nuts in over-reacting to every imagined threat to our safety. We are now left with a surveillance state that could eventually be more of a threat to our freedom than Al Qaida ever was.
Back about seven years ago I was having a conversation with a close friend, who I would describe as a serious Jesus-follower. His response to the question of whether it was ethical to torture prisoners to prevent further acts of terrorism was an emphatic, “Oh, hell yes!” I was a bit taken aback, but this man was a Bush supporter and a serious conservative in the Rush Limbaugh mode. His quick and emphatic answer was the sort of knee-jerk reaction that so many of us have to issues that need to be thought over at length and prayed about. His answer made me think where have we gone as a nation? But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to appear morally superior. There were times when I’ve thought let’s beat the snot out of the scum until they’re cursing their own mother and are willing to divulge every speck of information we need. There were times when that was a very appealing thought—but then have we not become like the Pogo character who said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
It also made me think of an old friend and co-worker who had fought at Iwo Jima. It was difficult to think of John as a trained killer in the USMC mode. He was only about 5-6 and 135-lbs soaking wet and about as gentle a man as I’ve ever known. His Marine Corps role at Iwo was to gather information from Jap prisoners. Marines were noted for not taking prisoners and the Japs were noted for not surrendering, but nevertheless a few at Iwo Jima were captured.
In their first interrogation of a prisoner the sargent in charge began punching the wounded, terrified Japanese soldier. . . and John burst into tears.
Maybe that should be our response as well.