"With the release of the Department of Justice (DOJ) memos regarding “interrogation techniques to be used on a high value al-Qaeda detainee,” Americans are being made to face the stark realities of the world in which they live. Where once our safety was the product of vigilance and bravery, it is now used as an affirmative defense in the court of public opinion.
This defense is put forward as an attempt to legitimize the barbaric practice of so called “advanced interrogation,” which is fundamentally out of sync with both American and international law and more abstractly with the normative idea of what America ought to be.
In the DOJ memos, a cold justification couched in the familiar framework of legal prose outlines the progress of the techniques of interrogation.
According to the DOJ, sleep deprivation does not constitute torture, as long as the detainee is not made to remain awake for more than 180 consecutive hours. According to the DOJ, waterboarding, a technique with roots that stretch back to the Spanish Inquisition, does not constitute torture as long as in any 30-day period, and subject to a dozen further stipulations, no 24 consecutive hours contain cumulative applications of water which in sum exceed 12 minutes total.
According to the DOJ, forced nudity, dietary manipulation, direct physical contact, confinement, stress positions, water dousing, and any combination of these and other approved techniques do not constitute torture. It is only when one oversteps the guidelines that an act of interrogation becomes indefensible. Only a breach of the outlined protocol constitutes a violation of the detainee’s humanity. How chillingly bureaucratic.
We are assured that these techniques are strictly regulated and monitored and are applied only in the case of the detainee who the Central Intelligence Agency “has reason to believe” is a member of al-Qaeda, has knowledge of an imminent attack, or poses a direct threat to America upon release.
Some familiar faces among the punditry want to remind us that these methods of interrogation are in the best interest of American security and that the temporarily imposed discomfort of evil men is worth the lives that might be saved by actionable intelligence.
What about opportunity cost? What do we give up for our gains? The question becomes one of context. During several, justifiable outbursts on air this week, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith implied, whether knowingly or not, the greater question: “I’m not saying what is torture, and what is not torture, but … whatever it is, you don’t do it for me.”
It is perhaps easier to take the high road when the argument is framed in terms of the safety of others: Is torture for the possibility of actionable information to save American lives worth sacrificing American principles?
Frame the question, as Smith has, with the focus on the individual and an entirely different question arises: is the chance of improving my safety, via these means, worth sacrificing American principles?
The further we delve into the darkness, the starker the moral ambiguity becomes. One simply cannot divorce the intent of the action from the weight of the effect it has on everything America stands for. To compromise principles of this magnitude in the face of a threat, whether real or imagined, is unacceptable.
What value is there in a constitution which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, if we are not willing to extend such guarantees to those whose personal sanctity is most vulnerable to the whim of abuses of power — the prisoner of war?
What good has come of 70 years of American hegemony, if we are willing to commingle with our basest opponents and engage actively in such an opprobrious offense against humanity as torture?
That the current administration stands in opposition to these practices is a positive sign, to be sure. And it may be true, as is argued by many, that America would be ill-served in pursuing retribution against those who facilitated these practices. We face a whole host of problems in the present, perhaps too many to pursue redress for wrongs of the past, that require considerable attention.
We must accept that the damage done will manifest itself in greater mistrust of America, both at home and abroad. We must accept that we have given, through short-sighted application of brutality, pre-packaged propaganda to mobilize and compel action and incite fear on the global stage.
What we must not accept is that this lapse in vigilance was anything but the corruption of the powerful few. We must not accept the practice of torture as anything but abhorrent to our notions of the rule of law, justice, and humanity at the most basic level. We must not let this dark time in American history overshadow the good in us, in our country, and in our ideals.
We must remember that, as difficult as it is at times to believe, the world is a beautiful place and worth fighting for.