As members of the Sept. 11 commission issued a "report card" for the government's anti-terrorist activities, the issue of the use (and question of legitimacy) of torture as a "tactic" for obtaining information on terrorist activities was once again called in to question.
Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war and suffered torturous methods supposedly aimed at gaining information, discredits the idea that torture is effective and calls upon the administration to forcefully declare an end to torture as a means to gaining information. "We should not torture or treat inhumanely terrorists we have captured," said McCain in a recent Newsweek article.
Torture, he feels, is not only a useless tool (and one that garners more misinformation than valuable intelligence) but similarly creates an environment of danger for our own soldiers and citizens. By first attacking the idea that torture may be necessary to stop future terrorist attacks, McCain looks to his own times as a prisoner, saying, "In my experience, abuse of prisoners often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear." Indeed, many point to the historic ineffectiveness of torture as a tool for intelligence gathering.
Likewise, McCain says, acceptance of the use of torture would potentially lead to even more hostility against America, something many see already happening after revelations of torture at places such as Abu-Ghirad. "The flames of extremism undoubtedly burn more brightly when we are the ones who deliver the gasoline," Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the Sept. 11 commission, recently said. Enacting extremism such as torture is likely to engender only more extremism.
McCain and others also call for an end to coercive tactics that might not necessarily cause lasting physical harm as a method of gaining information as well. While top advisors to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested such methods were justified and did not necessarily constitute "torture" (as law professor M. Gregg Bloche and bioethicist Jonathan H. Marks pointed out in a recent column in the New York Times), McCain and others suggest these so-called "interrogations tactics" are just as damaging as physical harm (indeed, McCain suggests he would rather take a beating than suffer something like a tactic such as "waterboarding" in which a prisoner is restrained, blindfolded and subjected to a mock drowning) and can exact long-term psychological consequences on subjects. Tactics sometimes dismissed as "interrogation techniques," asserts McCain, are "torture, very exquisite torture" and should likewise be banned.
Besides running the risk of, as McCain suggests, setting back the efforts to address terrorism and potentially opening the door for retaliatory harm, the underpinnings of accepting torture as a means to obtain information should trouble us as well. If we declare acceptance of torture under any circumstance, we open the door for the acceptance of arbitrary power. If organizations (be they government or other) are granted permission for torture in any capacity, Amnesty International has found in studies, instances of torture are almost guaranteed to increase under other circumstances. "Amnesty International's experience shows that if torture is no longer absolutely prohibited, law enforcement attitudes change. Over time, the attitude that torture and ill-treatment can be acceptable gains grounds and spreads throughout the entire system," cautions the international human rights group in a recent report on torture tactics. Indeed, as Amnesty International found in its examination, there has never been a case of a government or power torturing "only once" or only in a few extreme situations: Once torture is permitted (even under the caveat of use only in "extreme circumstance") it spreads swiftly. What constitutes warrantable circumstances for torture is likely to grow and we are less likely to notice or resist if it becomes more widespread.
This is the slippery slope of accepting arbitrary power: It is those with sovereign power that are able to enact arbitrary exhibits of such power: If one is to accept torture, one is implicitly accepting imperialist and oppressive values as well. And by accepting imperialism and imperialist ideas, one likewise accepts and reifies the things that inform imperialism, such as racism, sexism, classism and other oppressive aspects that are inherent in the imperial system. To accept torture would be to officially endorse imperialism and oppression, and that is something we should work to combat.
An official end to the tactic of torture is necessary: As McCain suggests, "to carve out legal exemptions to this basic principle of human rights risks opening the door to abuse as a matter of course," and indeed emphasizes a course of imperialist and arbitrary power that is damaging globally. Now is the time to make a firm commitment to ending torture in all forms and make a commitment to international human rights standards.
Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday.