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The Undisputed Illegitimacy of Torture

By Omar Baddar

"We must apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others. " This is the principle of universality,(1) perhaps the most elementary moral principle guiding human conception of fairness and justice. It was quite shocking for me to discover that large portions of our society implicitly dismiss this principle while simultaneously claiming moral consistency to their positions on many issues.

When a professor in one of my graduate classes last year asked whether torturing terrorism suspects was a legitimate practice, the student response was surprisingly discordant. What I once took to be an issue beyond dispute (that no one, let alone a potentially innocent person, should ever by subject to torture) was apparently a controversial issue among the broader public. Of course, terror "suspects" are by definition potentially innocent, since we hardly ever know if the suspect in custody really has reliable information about some terrorist plot. In that class debate, I asked torture advocates: "what if you were the suspect? What about your parents, spouse, sons and daughters? Would it be legitimate for others to torture them for their suspected possession of information?" I remember a student remarking: "Well, it's not like we're doing it to Americans, so what's the big deal ?" [paraphrasing].

Of course, the question of what qualifies as a universal human right has been a contentious issue even among distinguished advocates of human rights. So while article 5 of the 1993 Vienna Declaration argues that "[a]ll human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated" and that they must be treated in an "equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis,"(2) Michael Ignatieff rejects such equation among rights. He argues for a "defensible core of rights" made up of such rights that are "strictly necessary to the enjoyment of any life whatever," a list that, for Ignatieff, excludes social and economic rights.(3) Yet, even in the latter conception of human rights, the right to be "protected from cruelty " meets what Ignatieff personally terms a "minimalist" approach to human rights.(4) Despite this, the U.S. has yet to ratify the Convention against Torture.(5)

So what exactly causes one to conclude that cruelty is morally unacceptable only when it is committed against persons of one's own nationality, as in the case of the student in my class? Is it simply nationalistic fervor and fear of terrorism? Or is it a deep-rooted belief in "us vs. them, " with an actual thought-out conclusion that others are insufficiently civilized or human to deserve to be protected from such cruelty? I once believed that the former accounted for such attitudes, and that the latter explanation was merely a desperate rationalization exploited to justify the irrational passions driving such attitudes. I was disillusioned by several disturbing reports.

When three inmates held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay committed suicide last year, a top U.S. official called their suicides a "PR move."(6) The U.S. military camp commander described their suicides as "an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us."(7) Not only are detainees held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay, but they are also held in conditions that amount "to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment"(8) and are subject to coercive interrogation techniques that are "tantamount to torture ,"(9) causing leading human rights organizations to call for the camp's closure.(10) For anyone who believes in the humanity of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, the despair experienced from such conditions would make for a much more compelling explanation for the suicides and attempted suicides of inmates, rather than absurd arguments describing such suicides as acts of war or public relations stunts. As for the skeptics who feel that the terror suspects "had it coming," it's worth noting that it is not only guilty people who end up in Guantanamo Bay. At least one of those who committed suicide was due to be released with 141 others from the camp, but he didn't know it.(11)

The situation in Iraq is not any better. A 2006 report assessing the mental health of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq revealed the results of a survey taken of over 1,300 soldiers and 450 Marines in which 10% admitted to mistreating noncombatants (presumably higher when accounting for non-admitted acts), with less than half of those surveyed agreeing that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and a majority saying they would not report a team member for unethical behavior.(12)

And then there is the prisoner abuse in Iraq on the hands of U.S. soldiers, with the infamous case of Abu-Ghraib which Rush Limbaugh dismissed as soldiers just "having a good time."(13) Another telling case was the murder of an Iraqi General by U.S. army interrogator Lewis Welshofer, Jr. who, according to the Associated Press, was given "a reprimand but no jail time " by the military jury.(14) During his trial, his teary-eyed wife testified that she was concerned about how she would provide for their children if he was sent to jail, and that she was proud of him for fighting the case.

After the trial, the officer said "I deeply apologize if my actions tarnished the soldiers serving in Iraq ." Notice, as Robert Fisk points out, that there was no apology for the Iraqi people or the Iraqi General's family.(15) Concern is expressed for the interrogator's wife and children, but no mention whatsoever if the Iraqi general who was tortured to death had a wife and children or who would provide for them. That's because we're only supposed to care about "us" and not about "them."

Cruelty, moral hypocrisy, and double standards; this is the legacy we're leaving behind by not demanding better from ourselves and taking our government to task on the question of the treatment of our alleged enemies. Without the moral high-ground of fairness, justice, and universal human rights, the so-called "war on terror" will be dismissed as an excuse for the world's hegemonic power to solidify its control over the globe through brute force by eliminating its challengers. Not only do cruel treatment and torture of detainees put U.S. policy in contradiction with widely-held international law concerning respect for human rights, they also breed anti-American terrorism, making the U.S. less secure in the face of more committed extremists seeking to exact revenge for such practices. Torture is harmful to U.S. standing and the national interest, and is a morally reprehensible practice against which all concerned citizens and people of conscience should unite.

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End Notes:

(1) Chomsky, Noam. (2005) Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy. Page 3.

(2) The 1993 Vienna Declaration: http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf/(Symbol)/A.CONF.157.23.En

(3) Ignatieff, Michael. (2001) Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Page 90.

(4) Ignatieff, Michael. (2001) Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Page 89.

(5) Despite not ratifying the Convention against Torture (http://www.hrweb.org/legal/catsigs.html) The U.S. is still obligated to insure humane treatment of its prisoners and detainees in accordance of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/a_ccpr.htm) a treaty which the U.S. has ratified.

(6) BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5069230.stm

(7) BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5068606.stm

(8) Amnesty International: http://denouncetorture.amnestyusa.org/site/c.huITL9MVJxE/b.2297903/k.A24C/Close_Guantanamo.htm

(9) Red Cross: http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200412/s1255202.htm

(10) Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/06/22/usdom16240.htm http://denouncetorture.amnestyusa.org/site/c.huITL9MVJxE/b.2297903/k.A24C/Close_Guantanamo.htm

(11) BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5070514.stm

(12) CNN's report on the study: http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/05/11/iraq.main/index.html

(13) CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/06/opinion/meyer/main616021.shtml

(14) Robert Fisk on Democracy Now! http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/12/20/1443230

(15) Ibid.