I’m down on torture. Partly because I think it’s a moral atrocity, but even more so because I’m a genuine wimp and am honestly afraid of being tortured myself. If a society becomes so degraded that it will justify the brutal torture of a human being in the name of some alleged greater good, when the end is easily assumed to justify the means, then the end is near – the end of justice, the end of compassion, the end of humanity, and the end of human rights. It always begins with a violation of the rights of apparent fiends and hated minorities (call them hated “enemy combatants”, guilty by accusation alone, and lock them up without a trial – who could oppose that when it’s for our own protection?), but those ranks are easily expanded. When a government relies on torture for state security, everyone should feel insecure, especially those of us who have big mouths, minority opinions, offensive religious and political views, and trouble with authority. Not to mention having a couple blogs and a Website or two. No, I’m not being so egotistical as to think that anyone cares about what I say and do right now. But ten or twenty years from now? What if my occasional defense of and respect for the Muslim faith gets me listed as an enemy sympathizer? What if I attend a political meeting that gets accused of being radical? What if religious enemies accuse selected Mormons of being enemy combatants of some kind? I know all this sounds extreme – but more extreme is the present possibility that innocent men may be locked up and interrogated with extreme measures without due process. If it can happen to people we don’t like and who look funny, then I could be next in line someday.
Just writing this post might justify a little waterboarding someday, just to make sure I’m still a real patriot and not some whacked out enemy of Big Government (which I really love, for the record). I know some of you macho guys think you’d be strong and manly through it all, imagining how tough you’d be while someone punched you a few times in detention and maybe knocked out a tooth or two, but that’s kid stuff. I know enough of the innovations of monsters in our day to know that the vast, dark, lonely chasm between life and death when in the hands of professionally trained demons can eventually be too much for almost anybody. And I truly don’t want to find out where my limits are, and especially don’t want any of my family to probe that chasm either.
My father, at the end of the Korean War, returned to the United States on a ship with hundreds of American soldiers that had been prisoners of war who had just been released by North Korea. Over the next few weeks en route, he tried his best to talk to them and be friendly, but they were like zombies (my word), just barely able to go through a daily routine. The abuse and even torture they had been through affected them in many ways. It was chilling to see the damage that could be done at the hands of an enemy, and that impression has been passed on to me in the form of a fearful respect for what unkind captors can inflict on tough and courageous men. And that was with technology and methods that are archaic by today’s standards. I’m opening up here, sharing a weakness with the world: I’m genuinely frightened of what can be done by those who enjoy torture.
I think and hope that fellow American agents would be fairly decent in their use of waterboarding or whatever other extreme measures they use. I’m worried about that still, but not nearly as much as torture that is outsourced. We can say we don’t use the really brutal methods and technically be correct, but I’m most concerned about those who get shipped to other nations for interrogation, nations where anything goes. This happens. And it terrifies me.
Here’s an excerpt from “Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ Program” by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker:
On January 27th, President Bush, in an interview with the Times, assured the world that “torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.” Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was born in Syria, was surprised to learn of Bush’s statement. Two and a half years ago, American officials, suspecting Arar of being a terrorist, apprehended him in New York and sent him back to Syria, where he endured months of brutal interrogation, including torture. When Arar described his experience in a phone interview recently, he invoked an Arabic expression. The pain was so unbearable, he said, that “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.”
Arar, a thirty-four-year-old graduate of McGill University whose family emigrated to Canada when he was a teen-ager, was arrested on September 26, 2002, at John F. Kennedy Airport. He was changing planes; he had been on vacation with his family in Tunisia, and was returning to Canada. Arar was detained because his name had been placed on the United States Watch List of terrorist suspects. He was held for the next thirteen days, as American officials questioned him about possible links to another suspected terrorist. Arar said that he barely knew the suspect, although he had worked with the man’s brother. Arar, who was not formally charged, was placed in handcuffs and leg irons by plainclothes officials and transferred to an executive jet. The plane flew to Washington, continued to Portland, Maine, stopped in Rome, Italy, then landed in Amman, Jordan.
During the flight, Arar said, he heard the pilots and crew identify themselves in radio communications as members of “the Special Removal Unit.” The Americans, he learned, planned to take him next to Syria. Having been told by his parents about the barbaric practices of the police in Syria, Arar begged crew members not to send him there, arguing that he would surely be tortured. His captors did not respond to his request; instead, they invited him to watch a spy thriller that was aired on board.
Ten hours after landing in Jordan, Arar said, he was driven to Syria, where interrogators, after a day of threats, “just began beating on me.” They whipped his hands repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and kept him in a windowless underground cell that he likened to a grave. “Not even animals could withstand it,” he said. Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say. “You just give up,” he said. “You become like an animal.”
A year later, in October, 2003, Arar was released without charges, after the Canadian government took up his cause.
I know there are people who refuse to believe this, but there are enough pieces of evidence pointing to the use of this kind of “outsourcing” that it needs to be taken seriously (“renditions” is the term). And it’s not just left-wing radicals screaming about torture. Many genuine conservatives – that’s where I place myself on many issues – share this concern. A friend of mine, Chris Bentley, has written a chilling view of the future in a highly conservative publication that weaves factual details and documentation from today in the account. And I think it’s fair to be concerned. It’s a problem of government out of control, which is not an innovation of current leaders and, I fear, is not likely to go away when the next gang of power-seekers takes the throne.
Torture, of course, plays an interesting role in the scriptures. Christ was tortured, but triumphed, though He died and suffered intense agony beyond our comprehension. We read in Alma 27:29 in the Book of Mormon that the converted Lamanites, the pacific Anti-Nephi-Lehies, would “suffer death in the most aggravating and distressing manner which could be inflicted by their brethren, before they would take up the sword or cimeter to smite them.” Some of them were not just killed instantly but were obviously tortured. And later, as the Nephite civilization erodes into a corrupt and warlike society increasingly like our own, the Nephites themselves took delight in torturing their enemies. Our example of military excellence, Captain Moroni, on the other hand, hated bloodshed, hated brutality, and surely would not consider torture to extract information.
The “end-justifies-the-means” mindset of many of our leaders and their supporters on talk-shows and blogs seems akin to the repulsive “values clarification” programs that have been in our public schools for many years. In these programs, kids are challenged to come to terms with their own values by facing highly contrived, monstrous life-and-death dilemmas that they must resolve pragmatically. A typical version posits that there are ten people on a boat with only enough water and food for eight to survive, or some similar scenario. The traits of the ten people are listed: engineer, prostitute, teacher, athlete, a diabetic, etc. Two must be sacrificed for the greater good. How do you pick which two? It is such an ugly and vile exercise. I applaud the few students who reject the premise of the problem and would rather take an F on the assignment than play executioner and God. They are asked to assume the mindset of a social engineer, preparing them for a state that assumes life and death power over its herd of citizens. Repulsive.
In real life, I believe that good people can usually find other solutions to those rare difficult dilemmas that arise without having to sacrifice basic values. Not always, perhaps, but there is certainly no justification for making kids deal with such grotesque possibilities in the name of education. It is about education, of course, but not the kind that most parents want. We want our kids to learn their values from us, not from pragmatists ungrounded in moral principles from God. But I think this kind of thinking finds its zenith in the attitudes we see flaunted today: “We have to use extreme measures against these beasts. What if a whole city was about to blown up, and we had to find out where the bomb was? Wouldn’t any form of torture of any suspect be justified if it would save a million people?” And if it is justified to save a million people, what about a thousand, or a dozen, or perhaps a bald eagle or spotted owl? Or what if it would save a million dollars? I mean, a million dollars could be used to save thousands of lives with vaccinations, right?
I don’t care how much good someone might claim would be done by torture. I don’t want to go through it, and I don’t want anyone in my family to go through it. In fact, I can’t think of anyone that really needs it. Some people may need to be executed, after due process of law, but even then, no matter how heinous the crime, I think it should be done humanely.
See what a wimp I’ve become?