September 23, 2006

Torture: What Not to Say

The question of torture, an absurd discussion through most of the 20th century, has become a mainstream debate. The reason for this, like so many other reprehensible things, is that the morally hollow White House is framing the issue.

Everyone seems to accept this frame. When Bush says Common Article 3 of the Geneva Accords contains vague wording, no one points out that those words are a legal standard, and that they have never been challenged by anyone else in the world. Or maybe you've heard the "ticking time bomb argument," a hypothetical that's so full of fantasy and presumption that it wouldn't make the grade of a high school debate team.

The preferred argument against defining ourselves as torturers is one based on American self-centeredness: If we do it to others, others will do it to us. When the pundits talk of this angle, they often get even more parochial by pointing out that anti-torture White House-hopeful, John McCain was tortured himself as a POW in Vietnam. This bit of trivia diminishes McCain's opposition, as if it's just his personal peeve, something for which he must be indulged because of his status as a victim.

Completely absent in the discussion are two important elements. First one is that torture does not yield quality intelligence, according to military interrogators. Even the info beaten out of Al Qaeda figure, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi was untrue, and that coerced testimony became the centerpiece of Colin Powell's lies to the UN that ginned up the invasion of Iraq.

A second vital, but missing element is the presumption of innocence. To be innocent until proven guilty has been the bedrock of our justice system for centuries. But in this debate it's often said, 'these guys are terrorists, they aren't really human beings.' To say this is to ignore the fact that the vast majority of those held at Gitmo, rendered to and tortured at secret CIA prisons (and Abu Ghraib before that) are guilty of nothing.

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