There are those who would turn the issue of torture into a debate about its efficacy. This is like believing one can debate the pluses and minuses of life at Auschwitz. The very thought is appalling.
But here we are, and the debate in question centers not around whether torture is fit behavior for a mature democracy — the so-called “beacon of the free world” — but whether it “works.”
My God. Slavery worked — for the slaveholders. But, gratefully, with the exception perhaps of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, there has long reigned unanimity about the inhumanity of the plantation system and the countless lives it crushed. With respect to torture, however, we have yet to arrive at a similar place in our thinking.
Beat the bushes in our fair land and you will find an ample number of Americans who are at best apathetic, if not cheerleaders for a policy of torture. There seems to prevail a sense in those ranks that anyone who opposes America deserves to be tortured. The recently released Senate “Torture Report” reveals, in the words of the New York Times editorial board, “a portrait of depravity” that went on for years, orchestrated by a CIA that conducted its own private foreign policy in the putative belief that torture — I cannot bring myself to write “enhanced interrogation” — would yield valuable information that would thwart terrorist attacks against American interests.
According to the report, it never did. To be blunt, human beings were killed, sometimes with bare fists, for the hell of it.
If the men who were tortured were guilty of some crime (not all of them were), if they were consummately evil (not all of them were) and if they had information of value in defending the United States (apparently none of them did, because it couldn’t even be beaten, frozen or drowned out of them), then there were already protocols in place — short of torture — for dealing with these individuals. But it seems President George W. Bush’s “bring it on” mentality set the tone for a sort of testosterone-fueled carnival of violence that did not peak with the torments of Abu Ghraib. Now we know that it continued at other U.S. installations and convinced people all over the earth that the United States was the greatest threat to world peace.
Beyond the bone-breaking damage done to the victims of American torture, there is another aspect to consider: the effect of torture on its practitioners.
Torture is like alcoholism. The process of becoming a drunkard is difficult at first, but it gets easier with the heaving of each shot. I am mindful of a passage in “Anna Karenina,” in which Tolstoy describes this very process: “The first glass sticks in the throat, the second flies down like a hawk, but after the third they’re like tiny little birds.” So it is with the lash or the balled fist or the jauntily named “waterboarding.” What starts out perhaps as a difficult first step over a high moral threshold soon becomes a repetitive task, a good day’s work, until the torturer, in the words of the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, is no longer interested in obtaining information but in spreading fear.
I began this opinion piece by questioning those who would view torture as a useful tool like any other: If it works, then so be it. But now I would like to say, plainly and clearly, that I reject such toxic pragmatism, the same way I could not sit down and “reasonably” discuss the bright side of child abuse, the advantages of racism or the benefits of life in the gulag.
I believe the United States, my native land, must cure itself of the itch to continually make exceptions in its own case. If we do not want to be invaded, then we must not invade. If we want our democracy to flourish, then we must not deny it to others. And if we do not wish our people to be tortured, then we must keep our hands to ourselves.
If torture is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.
What the hell happened to my beloved country?
Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine Augusta at Bangor. He is the author of “The Three Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching” and is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association’s annual award for opinion writing.