Suppose you have a relative, neighbor, or student you knew and cared for that somehow fell into forbidden paths and joined a violent gang. He has committed murder, maybe many murders. He has refused to discuss his crimes and reveal information about his gang. He has information that could prevent other crimes from being committed. You have the privilege of being the interrogator. How “vigorous” could you be, in good conscience? Would you feel justified in applying the arts of pain creation to coerce information? Would beatings or injections of damaging substances be justified? How much could you do, knowing that you would later stand before others in your community or extended family to explain and justify what you did?
Now suppose the murderer is your son and someone else in your community is the interrogator. How much physical coercion would you feel was justified? At what point would you not be able to say, “Sure, Mr. Interrogator, you were just doing what was reasonable. There’s no need to apologize. We all support what you did.”
Suppose we have a civil war that divides your community in half, with some of the once-promising LDS young men in your ward now serving on the other side – perhaps a vile and wicked side that has brainwashed many into violent behavior. You’ve captured one of them in a bloody battle that killed some of your own ward members. Now it’s interrogation time. You know these young men. They once had promise, but have fallen. So how far can you go in interrogating them? The information might save lives. A little waterboarding, perhaps, that puts the fear of death in them over and over? Maybe just a few shallow cuts, some brief choking, and only a few dozen volts applied to sensitive parts of their body? Or maybe you’re a bleeding heart sissy kind that doesn’t go much beyond a little old-fashioned humiliation of disrobed prisoners?
As evil as murderers and terrorists are, as worthy of death as some of them may be, how can we forget that they are human beings like ourselves, like our own sons and daughters who also may fall? How can we justify the “interrogation” techniques that have been used? Consider, for example, the case of Benyam Mohammed as reported in The Guardian (or, for those who think that’s just a liberal rag, as also reported in the much more right-wing magazine, The New American).
These men are people. Murderers, perhaps, or at least soldiers we are fighting. But they are sons of our Heavenly Father just as much as we are. They are human. Wrong in their views and actions, yes. But how can we as a nation justify physical abuse of captives because we claim that the end justifies the means? If they deserve death, then execute them – humanely, and after proper procedures have been followed. If they deserve captivity, then incarcerate them – humanely. There are reasonable limits to what can morally be done in interrogation of a prisoner, even of a serial killer. These limits must not be abandoned if law, justice, and human dignity are to mean anything.
Surely you cannot have missed the fact that our Government has taken vigorous actions to sidestep the Geneva Convention regarding accused terrorists. Doesn’t that concern you? Shouldn’t it terrify you? Have you noticed what happens when nations become police states?
So how do we define torture? I’m not sure. There may be some gray areas. But creating intense and repeated panic or approaching suffocation with waterboarding doesn’t sound like what I think we could do in good faith to the captured sons of our neighbors or fellow Church members even in the terror and frenzy of a civil war or in dealing with someone we care for who became a violent gangster.
But sadly, we have gone far beyond these supposedly non-injurious but still abusive tactics. Read the articles linked to above about Benyam Mohammed – one of many witnesses. Or consider this excerpt from Newsweek‘s article, “The Roots of Torture,” dealing with Abu Ghraib:
“The photos clearly demonstrate to me the level of prisoner abuse and mistreatment went far beyond what I expected, and certainly involved more than six or seven MPs,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former military prosecutor. He added: “It seems to have been planned.”
Indeed, the single most iconic image to come out of the abuse scandal–that of a hooded man standing naked on a box, arms outspread, with wires dangling from his fingers, toes and penis–may do a lot to undercut the administration’s case that this was the work of a few criminal MPs. That’s because the practice shown in that photo is an arcane torture method known only to veterans of the interrogation trade. “Was that something that [an MP] dreamed up by herself? Think again,” says Darius Rejali, an expert on the use of torture by democracies. “That’s a standard torture. It’s called ‘the Vietnam.’ But it’s not common knowledge. Ordinary American soldiers did this, but someone taught them.”
Who might have taught them? Almost certainly it was their superiors up the line. Some of the images from Abu Ghraib, like those of naked prisoners terrified by attack dogs or humiliated before grinning female guards, actually portray “stress and duress” techniques officially approved at the highest levels of the government for use against terrorist suspects. It is unlikely that President George W. Bush or senior officials ever knew of these specific techniques, and late last week Defense spokesman Larry DiRita said that “no responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that could conceivably have been intended to result in such abuses.” But a NEWSWEEK investigation shows that, as a means of pre-empting a repeat of 9/11, Bush, along with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft, signed off on a secret system of detention and interrogation that opened the door to such methods. It was an approach that they adopted to sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war. In doing so, they overrode the objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell and America’s top military lawyers–and they left underlings to sweat the details of what actually happened to prisoners in these lawless places. While no one deliberately authorized outright torture, these techniques entailed a systematic softening up of prisoners through isolation, privations, insults, threats and humiliation–methods that the Red Cross concluded were “tantamount to torture.”
No, I’m not an anti-American or Al Qaeda sympathizer. I do not support the political agenda of the ACLU. I am conservative on most issues. If we must fight in a war, I want us to win and win quickly (and then get out). But I am shocked and horrified at the softening of America’s moral fiber, at the loss of standards at so many levels, that would allow even a tiny minority of people in our military to feel justified in abusing captives beyond what we would tolerate for criminals taken from among our own.
Finally, at a purely selfish level, I oppose torture of captives because one day I may be the captive, having offended some official for offensive remarks made on this blog or in a private conversation in my home monitored by some thug with a listening device. If I am accused, I want to at least be treated humanely. And that excludes even waterboarding, one of the more benign tactics that have been used in our efforts to police the world.
Our enemies are human. They are more like us than we may realize. And if they, though human, have acted like vile demons, there is certainly no need for us to become more like them.