Reject moral relativism in the face of terrorism and threat

How would you respond if an “intellectually challenged” American with no involvement in violence was held by another country and tortured so a tape of him crying could be used to try to get a family member to supply information?

What would you feel if an American imprisoned by non-Americans was told that his mother would be raped or killed in front of him if he didn’t talk?

How might you react if another American, picked up as a matter of mistaken identity, was doused with cold water, left chained to an unheated floor in a tiny space, became hypothermic and died?

These incidents are outlined in the Senate report on interrogation, done by Americans to others. The report was based on over 6 million pages of CIA documents as well as testimony to the Intelligence Committee and internal CIA interviews.

What happened wasn’t “just” waterboarding — a practice for which Americans hanged Japanese World War II soldiers.

Imprisoned people were made to stand on broken limbs, wear diapers, stay awake for a week so they suffered hallucinations, receive “rectal hydration” via an intravenous tube, and suffer food placed in the rectum.

Of the 119 detailed, at least 26 had no connection to terrorism — including the “intellectually challenged” man, the one who died from hypothermia, and two held solely on the “fabricated” word of another person who was tortured.

One innocent prisoner was held for 19 months in solitary confinement. Describing that time, he said, “Whenever I saw a fly in my cell, I was filled with joy. Although I would wish for it to slip from under the door so it would not be imprisoned itself.”

No one has questioned these things happened, not even the strongest defenders of the interrogation program.

We would all be angry and appalled if they were done to Americans. They are actions of profound damage, injuring people’s bodies, psyches and human dignity.

Unless you espouse moral relativism, if these are wrong when experienced by Americans, they are wrong when done to others.

We lose our moral standing to criticize similar actions elsewhere when we do them ourselves.

Bringing hidden actions into the light forces us to think about what limits we place on government and what we stand for.

We are tested the most when horrific things, like the September 11 attacks, happen.

Americans in wartime have sometimes shown a disregard for civil liberties. Japanese-Americans were sent to detention camps during World War II.

Yet our traditions and laws bar cruelty toward prisoners, going back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Our nation endorsed Geneva Conventions on humane treatment of prisoners in 1929 and 1949.

When President Ronald Reagan asked the Senate to ratify the Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1988 he said it would “demonstrate unequivocally our desire to bring to an end the abhorrent practice of torture.”

Defenders’ emphasis on effectiveness promotes a morality where the ends justify the means.

In any case, CIA Chief John Brennan acknowledged torture’s effectiveness was, at best, “unknowable.”

The Senate report meticulously reviewed 20 situations touted by the CIA and found that evidence from other sources stopped terrorism. For instance, torture didn’t lead to capturing the mastermind of a Bali bombing; “signals intelligence, a CIA source, and investigations by the Thai authorities” did.

Even worse, lies, extracted by torture, found their way into Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations about Iraq’s purported, nonexistent, weapons of mass destruction. More American soldiers died in Iraq than Americans killed on September 11.

As Sen. John McCain, himself the victim of torture, said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.

“Most of all,” said McCain, “I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.