Is torture really all that bad?

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This question seems to be getting continual play. Take Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz: he thinks that if the U.S. is going to torture people no matter what, “it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice.” He even went so far as to recommend a sticking a sterilized needle under fingernails as a good, non-lethal method of torture. And it’s not just Dershowitz taking a soft stance on torture.

The fact that the media has been so slow and reluctant to use the word “torture,” and to publish the nasty truth of the sanctioning of torture readily evident in published military reports reveals a more deeply-seated belief that torture may not be all that bad—especially if we’re talking about torturing “bad” people. People don’t like the word “torture,” so the CIA has tried to come up with something else. Last Thursday, CIA Director Porter Goss was challenged by Sen. John McCain about the CIA’s use of “waterboarding”, in which a prisoner is made to believe that he will drown. Mr. Goss replied only that the approach fell into “an area of what I will call ‘professional interrogation techniques.'”

Unfortunately, it seems we’ve gotten to a point where it’s necessary to point out that having a needle pushed under your nail (yes, even if it’s sterilized) is unacceptable. And, making a prisoner believe he is going to drown, while it may be a “professional interrogation technique,” is still torture. The fact that there is even a discussion about whether or not we should, in times of conflict, consider torture as a viable tactic is absurd.

Dershowitz’s argument that “the government is going to do it anyway, so we might as well give it some legal oversight” could be applied to almost any criminal activity employed in wartime. Perhaps the word “torture” has been so oft-repeated that it has dulled our senses. Let’s replace it with the word “rape”—arguably a much more successful tactic in wartime than torture has proven to be. A colleague of mine at Mother Jones has written about the widespread campaign of rape an efficient war-time tactic: “Rape has been recognized and implemented by its perpetrators as an effective means of breaking down a society and as a strategic means towards achieving military ends.” So just because rape will continue to be used in conflict anyway, and successfully achieves its goals, should a country legally sanction it, or regulate it?

If we’ve gotten to the point where the only way we can obtain intelligence, and prevent future acts of terrorism is through such an unreliable means as torture, we’re in trouble. This administration has often been criticized for trying to reduce complex issues into oversimplified arguments of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.” But here is a case in which the subtleties of language, and the law, have no place.


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