It has been a couple of weeks since the terrorist attacks in Jordan and the fortuitous capture of a female terrorist whose bomb-laden belt did not detonate. Are they torturing her? Why should I care? What about the 57 innocents who died because the Iraqi Al Quada believes that the Jordanian government is too friendly with Israel and the west? What about the lives that were saved?
Some years ago, my daughter was in Israel when someone bombed the shuk, the marketplace in Jerusalem. I woke up to a transatlantic phone call that began, "Mom, I'm all right." Usually I wake up slowly but her voice and her message shot me into adrenaline-infused alertness and I continued to shake for the rest of the day. When she came back, she told me that she and her group had been in the shuk the day before the bombing. I started to shake again. What if the torture of a captured terrorist had kept the suicide bomber from bombing the shuk and killing all those pre-Shabbat shoppers? What if my daughter had visited the shuk a day earlier? How would I feel?
Since then, terrorism has become much more personal for Americans: the disease is within as well as from outside. Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. veteran, did not have a drop of Middle Eastern blood but 168 people died when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. September 11, 2001 and its 3000 victims unnerved all of us. If either of these horrific events could have been avoided by torturing an informant, would it have been justified?
Is it justified to torture the woman captured in Jordan to extract information that could save hundreds of lives? Suppose Israel had someone in custody that they believed knew something about a planned suicide bombing; would they be justified? Would I, as a parent and citizen have wanted them to do anything and everything to prevent this tragedy? How do a civilized people respond to this question? (The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that torture is illegal. The Israeli government still uses practices that I would categorize as torture.)
Poet John Donne's (1572-1631) response seems hopelessly idealistic yet it is his humanism that I instinctively embrace. "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.."Donne could not have envisioned religious fanatics girding themselves with bombs and killing large numbers of people who disagree with them politically or religiously.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384-322 BC), one of the fathers of Western Civilization, does not address the matter of torture directly but one could make an argument for torture as a means to save lives based on his statement that "Virtue makes the goal right, practical wisdom the things leading to it." Yet he also addresses the morality of killing, counseling against it but he seems to relent when dealing with wrong-doers. "Witness seems to be borne to this both by individuals in their private capacity and by legislators themselves; for these punish and take vengeance on those who do wicked acts (unless they have acted under compulsion or as a result of ignorance for which they are not themselves responsible), while they honour those who do noble acts, as though they meant to encourage the latter and deter the former."
Christianity's approach to killing is complex, the Old Testament dictums of the Ten Commandments include "Thou shalt not kill,"and are reinforced by Christ teaching his followers to turn the other cheek and his own actions when his life was at stake.
But later Christian thinkers such as Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas developed the notion of just war, which allows war when there is a just cause and trustworthy leadership. But none of these take into account the practice of torturing prisoners.
The most infamous practices of torture connected directly to Christianity are now universally condemned: the Catholic Church's Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834), which used every imaginable--and inconceivable--form of torture. You need only to look up torture on the Internet to find blood-chilling pictures of the terrible implements of agony employed by the Inquisition. The alleged noble purposes of the Inquisition hardly justify the horrendous pain the victims endured. No lives were at stake; they did not torture them because they were trying to force information that would have saved the lives of innocents. They tormented them because they could and could get away with it. The justifications were pure rationalization. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Our brief tour of the rational and philosophical frameworks of our civilization now done, we turn to twentieth and twenty-first century America.
First, we claim to have looked to our experience of torture by Leftist dictatorships for lessons in torture. Second, we are using torture methods covertly developed by our own military and CIA. Third, we are engaging in the euphemistically named practice of "rendition," in which anti-U.S. captives are sent to a third country to be tortured. We might call this the Bush Special because it reflects the long-time practice of the Bush family or leaving the dirty work to others while holding up their "clean" hands.
Then we have the simple pragmatism suggested by Senator John McCain, himself a former prisoner of war, that we respect the Geneva Conventions in regards to all captives so that our soldiers will be treated in like manner.
Law professors M. Gregg Bloche and Jonathan H. Marks recently coauthored an opinion piece that was published in the New York Times, "Doing Unto Others as They Did Unto Us." A brief summary of the article is that the U.S. began using interrogation tactics that amount to torture after 9/11 taking a page from techniques they developed to prepare American soldiers for North Korean (Korean War 1950-53) and Vietnamese (circa 1950-75) torture methods that they might face in the field. But wait, what about the establishment of the Army School of the Americas which was established in 1946 during the Golden Age of Latin American totalitarianism. Ostensibly, it was to bring stability to Latin America but at what cost? If the number of Latin Americas killed by their own governments were tallied, from 1950-2000, there would be thousands upon thousands of Chilean, Argentina, Bolivian, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Honduran, and Panamanian victims in the toll. In Guatemala alone, 200,000 civilians were either killed or "disappeared."
Who held the guns? In many cases, a graduate of the SOA such as Guatemala's General Hector Gramajo was the culprit. These are not the lunatic ravings of a Left-winger. Gramajo was sued in absentia in a United States District Court and ordered to pay $47.5 million to the families of eight Guatemalans and an American nun who were victims of atrocities committed by the Guatemalan military when Gramajo was the vice chief of staff and director of the army. U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock found him liable for the murders of thousands of Guatemalans.
Sadly, Gramajo never had to pay the price for his human rights violations. The victory was largely symbolic.
More than a decade ago, David Stockwell, former CIA station-master in Angola, quit the agency and went public with the CIA's practice and teaching of torture in The Praetorian Guard: The U.S: Role in the New Order and In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story. In his books and public lectures, he described his own experiences of witnessing the acts of torture that drove him out of the CIA and to go public. In his lectures, The Secret Wars of the CIA reprinted in their entirety on the web by The Other Americas Radio:
"We had the `public safety program' going throughout Central and Latin America for 26 years, in which we taught them to break up subversion by interrogating people. Interrogation, including torture, the way the CIA taught it. Dan Metrione, the famous exponent of these things, did 7 years in Brazil and 3 in Uruguay, teaching interrogation, teaching torture. He was supposed to be the master of the business, how to apply the right amount of pain, at just the right times, in order to get the response you want from the individual."
The government's response to Stockwells books was to pass a law making it against the law to speak or write about anything that government employees saw or experienced while in the government service. In other words, whistleblowers, run for your lives!
Last week, more than 19,000 people were arrested at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), formerly known as the US Army School of the Americas (SOA) which is widely held to be a training school for torture and repression. It is an astonishing number of protestors to be found in a demonstration in Fort Benning, Georgia; protests in New York, Washington or another large urban center can attract such numbers, but Fort Benning, Georgia? Out in the middle of farmland? Is this a sign that the tide is turning, and if it is, how will it turn? To more repression and extensions of the Patriot Act?
For too long, our government has held itself up as the paragon of virtue that interferes with foreign governments only when democracy is threatened. They have conflated their vigorously declared religious beliefs with the idea of war while they do their evil deeds, evil that avoids the human treatment of enemy combatants. We cannot stand aside while others are tortured in our name. If we are to claim our righteousness, we must stand on principle. A civilized people does not inflict torture.
God is not the creator of law. Law is particular to a people and it is created by those people. While the religiously devout attribute the highest laws to God, I believe that law can be a creation of the finest instincts of human intellect. I say can be because laws created by Nazis were used to persecute Jews; laws made by our own government persecuted black people, Chinese, Latinos, and even Chinese, and continue to be used to oppress gay people.
By now, any thinking American should realize that we see the world through a scrim of lies. We, Americans, teach torture. We, Americans, teach those who look up to us to engage in subterfuge and circumvent our most deeply-held ideals.
Moses and the Ten Commandments, Jesus and his Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, or the saints who canonized the laws of the Catholic Church, or Aristotle in the Parthenon are not the ones who should take umbrage at our lawlessness in Iraq. We, as a people, should be appalled at the atrocities that are being done in our name and in the name of our Constitution. That is the only standard that we, all of us, are bound to, as a people. We, Americans, violate the spirit of the highest law in our land by sacrificing our youth on the altar of those lies.
World War I poet and martyr Wilfred Owen said it best in his lament for the men of his generation who perished on the battlefields of Europe, The Parable of the Old man and the Young:
"... Isaac the first-born spoke and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And then builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
... offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one."
The old man would not listen. While our young men and women run the risk of being tortured and killed, we must find a way to make the old men--Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld--listen, "and offer the Ram of Pride instead ." We must not allow them to wreck, bankrupt, fight wars in and environmentally and morally degrade the world we will live in for the rest of our lives. Basta!
Dr. Rosa Maria Pegueros is a professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island.