“The United States is committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example. I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment.” –George W. Bush on June 26, 2003, U.N. Torture Victims Recognition Day.
In March 2002, the Bush administration began to approve, without public knowledge or consent, what were clandestinely termed “advanced interrogation techniques.” These included brutal beatings, prolonged sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and many other inhumane practices. As knowledge of these grievous acts began to reach the American conscience, a public outcry arose. Why had the United States government hypocritically turned on its history of leading the world as a moral and just nation? Why were we turning to torture?
The U.N. Convention Against Torture defined torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession,” and goes on to say that, “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” On December 7, 2005, Condoleeza Rice said, “As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States’ obligations [fall] under the CAT (Convention against Torture), which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment – those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside the United States.”
To highlight how the “interrogation techniques” allowed by the Bush administration violate the aforementioned definition, consider waterboarding, a form of torture first used during the Spanish Inquisition, which has been universally condemned as torture. The victim is bound and immobilized, a rag is held tightly over their face, and water is poured into their mouth. What may be the most accurate description of the psychological and physical effects comes from Malcolm Nance, a former Master Instructor and Chief of Training of the U.S. Navy Seals, who said, “Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration. Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. When done right, it is controlled death.”
The main justification for the use of torture is that it allows for the extraction of vital information that will save American lives. However, top U.S. intelligence officials agree that, frequently, torture not only fails to generate such intelligence, but instead yields faulty and misleading information. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Harry E. Soyster, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, went so far as to say, “Torture is counterproductive on all fronts. It produces bad intelligence. It ruins the subject, makes them useless for further interrogation. And it damages our credibility around the world.” William Oatis, an American journalist subjected to over 40 consecutive hours of sleep deprivation by the Czech government in 1951, explained his decision to sign a false confession admitting to espionage: “I had not chosen to abandon the truth — the choice had been made for me.” According to Bob Baer, a former CIA officer, “You can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture’s bad enough.” Even the Army Field Manual states that the “use of torture is not only illegal but also it is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the [interrogator] wants to hear.” Not only is torture ethically wrong, it’s ineffective, given that more efficient methods already exist. Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, the military commander at Guantanamo, has said, “We get so much dependable information from just sitting down and having a conversation and treating [detainees] like human beings in a businesslike manner.”
No bill was written to allow waterboarding after September 11th, no debate held in the Senate, no notice given to the American people of its use at Guantanamo Bay. Between the time that rumors began to circulate and the time when a bill was drafted to ban the practice, the U.S. State Department released a statement saying that “submersion of the head in water,” used “to elicit confessions‚” in Tunisia constituted a form of torture, the U.S. Department of Defense released a revised manual that prohibited the use of waterboarding, and Steven Bradbury, acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, said, “There has been no determination by the Justice Department that the use of waterboarding, under any circumstances, would be lawful under current law.” The bill to ban waterboarding passed through Congress, but, on March 8, 2008, President Bush vetoed it.
The Bush administration sanctioned torture in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack on our nation’s soil. They felt compelled to take action, to bring to justice those who had violated the security of every American. In their desire to prevent such an atrocity from happening again, they allowed a level of force they deemed necessary to fulfill that duty. They were wrong. The United States has a history of prosecuting those who practice waterboarding, be they American soldiers caught using the method during both the Spanish-American and Vietnam Wars, or a Japanese officer who waterboarded Americans during WWII. But now the U.S. government has resorted to using the very practice they had historically condemned. If we allow these forms of torture, where will we draw the line? If we use waterboarding, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and other “techniques” now, when might we begin to burn, beat, and cut people? If our enemies see us resorting to torture, what will they do to the American soldiers that they capture? What will our happen to our credibility with our allies? Torture is wrong. It is ethically, pragmatically, and legally indefensible. This is the line we must draw for our allies, our enemies, and ourselves.
Ryan is from Santa Clara, CA majoring in Economics and Spanish Translation. Austin is from Mclean, VA majoring in Computer Science.