By Diane Roberts, Monday 9 May 2011 16.54 BST
First, let’s call it by its proper name. Waterboarding is not “robust questioning” or “enhanced interrogation techniques” or any of the other sinister euphemisms employed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo. It’s torture. It was torture when the Japanese did it to Allied prisoners in the second world war. It’s still torture; and it’s still wrong.
Since the killing of Osama bin Laden, the perpetually simmering debate over torture is again boiling out of the pan. The CIA director, Leon Panetta, suggested that information gained from waterboarding may have helped lead Americans to bin Laden. White House press secretary Jay Carney denied it. Republican representative Peter King, Fox pundit Bill O’Reilly and Jose Rodriguez, head of counterterrorism under George W Bush, insist that torturing two “high-value” detainees, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi, was essential to discovering the name of bin Laden’s courier, which, in turn, led to the compound in Abbotabad. King, who has been holding McCarthyish congressional hearings on Islamic “radicalism” in America, said flatly: “We obtained that information through waterboarding.” The Obama administration, as well as a number of former CIA and National Security Council operatives say torture was not key to catching America’s Public Enemy No One.
Popular as it is, this is the wrong discussion. What we should really be talking about is whether it is ever acceptable to torture. Does the end justify the means? Torture apologists like to trot out the good old “ticking bomb” scenario. You know: the one where there’s a huge bomb about to explode, planted somewhere in Los Angeles or London or Mumbai. The authorities have captured one or two or 10 of the terrorists responsible. If torturing them will reveal the location of the bomb, surely it’s not merely justifiable but imperative. A few lives against millions? No contest.
Never mind that the “ticking bomb” scenario, beloved of the writers of “24”, never happens in real life. Never mind that military intelligence experts say that beating, hanging, freezing, electrocuting or pretending to kill a suspect doesn’t work. We would have to torture everybody even remotely suspected to be involved in a past, present or future atrocity, run a spreadsheet of whatever data they “provided”, then sort through it to somehow figure out what was true and what was said just to stop the pain. Where do we stop? Twenty people? A hundred? A thousand? How do we simply dispense with one person’s rights to preserve other people’s?
Americans will tell you we are a nation of laws. A person is innocent until proven guilty. But the majority of detainees at Guantanamo and those in the secret prisons the CIA maintained with the help of morally flexible governments around the world have not been charged with crimes. It turns out that many of the people we held on that never never island just off Cuba were guilty of nothing more than herding goats on the wrong Afghan hill. How do we reconcile this with our core belief in equal justice under the law? We can’t with a straight face claim that everyone’s rights are worthy of protection unless that person happens to be a Muslim or come from certain countries or sport a long beard and answer to an Arabic-sounding name.
For a people convinced that their country is great because their country is good, we have been complicit in many shameful episodes since September 2011: Muslims, some of whom were immigrants, some of whom were US citizens, were rounded up as “persons of interest” in the first weeks after al-Qaida attacked. The Bush administration practised “extraordinary rendition” – kidnapping – sending people to Egyptian prisons where they were tortured. We were violating international law, contravening the Geneva Conventions. Despite Bush legal advisor John Yoo’s dodgy claim that the president was not bound by the War Crimes Act and that Guantanamo detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status, America was guilty. The world knew it. We tried to tell ourselves that it was “necessary”, that we were protecting ourselves, that this, after all, was war.
The subtext is that our enemies, those guys in the orange jumpsuits, those guys with the turbans, they aren’t really people. Not like us. European Americans enslaved and mistreated Africans for 300 years and denied them rights for another 100 on the grounds that they aren’t like “us”. The ideology of slavery was based on dehumanisation. We told ourselves those dark-skinned creatures were stupid, violent, immoral, animalistic. The logic of torture is similar: Muslims don’t value human life. They’re fanatics. They hate our freedoms. They don’t follow the rules of war. They commit atrocities on civilians and soldiers alike. Not like us. Therefore, we are justified in treating them badly.
The proposition that America must not torture because the nation of Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Tubman, Crazy Horse and Martin Luther King Jr should hold to higher principles will not impress subscribers to Glenn Beck’s caliphate theory (this is the one where American leftists, feminists, European socialists and Islamists join forces to create a totalitarian superstate) or even moderates who simply think you have to fight fire with fire.
It’s a cop-out to say torture doesn’t work. But happily it’s true. Detailed investigations by the New York Times and National Public Radio (among others) confirm that torture did not yield actionable information. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times at a CIA “black site”. Much of what he said while undergoing this barbaric treatment turned out to be lies. Mohammed gave up the good stuff months later to interrogators using subtler techniques. Still, the cop-out helps. Confronting our past crimes in the face of our present fears is a little less difficult if we cling to the utilitarian idea that torture does not accomplish anything other than wrecking our image in the world. It’s a bitch, trying to be as good as you say you are.