A few thoughts on torture

Here in California, the headlines this morning are focused on Stanley Williams. Will we murder him or won’t we? Only Arnold can decide–the stay of execution filed on Saturday was refused by the state court.

Nationally, however, there is another, related issue which is beginning to pick up speed–the torture ban. Initially, when I read proposals for a torture ban, I was surprised. I was under the impression that the United States had already banned torture, because it has been proven to be an inefficient and unreliable method of information extraction. It would also be an eighth amendment issue–torture is cruel and unusual punishment. Well…perhaps in this day and age, not unusual, alas, but certainly cruel.

It intrigues me that a fight is brewing over the ban, which has already passed in the Senate. The administration has stated that it will veto the ban, however, unless CIA agents working overseas are exempted. This is an interesting state of affairs. The administration has gone from vigorously claiming that it does not practice or encourage torture to seeking a specific exemption for overseas agents–a hall pass for torture, as it were. This sea change seems largely to have been driven by the Vice President. Overseas agents already have a great deal of leeway. It has also been amply demonstrated that the United States farms out its torture needs overseas, shipping suspected terrorists to allies without torture qualms for “interrogation.”

The torture ban fascinates me on several levels. The first, and simplest, is that torture, as discussed above, is not an appropriate way to gather information. Numerous studies and interviews with torture victims have concluded that any information derived through torture is suspect. The person being tortured may not actually have any of the information the interrogator is looking for, but they will certainly lie to end the pain. If the CIA has arrived at major breakthroughs in the er, war on terror, through torture, this information has not been released to the public. No headline has proclaimed “Osama Bin Ladin captured in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, after torture of suspected terrorist reveals his whereabouts.” The CIA is exempt from oversight in many instances, yet in this case, it seems like they need to prove the case for torture. If torture is such a valuable tool, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to prove that to us.

My primary issue with torture, however, is that it is inhumane. It bothers me a great deal that the leader of the free world, which should be setting an example, thinks it is ok to abuse other human beings. (It’s also curious that members of the BDSM community are persecuted within the United States–while it’s ok to beat a terrorist, it’s not ok to consensually whip your partner, apparently.) The United States does not exactly have a good track record in terms of human rights. Although our (white) (male) citizens enjoy relative freedom from torture, we were one of the last western nations to ban slavery. We also have a long and established history of using torture on our “enemies.” Many urban police forces have faced accusations of excessive force from their victims. We have still not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, along with another notable human rights proponent, Somalia. We remain the only two UN member states who have not ratified. It’s time to change our image in the world, and come out against torture. We should also be supporting things like children’s rights, despite my professed loathing of children. I don’t really like dogs either, and I don’t support animal abuse.

My dislike of the death penalty is associated with my dislike for torture, because I tend to lump the two together. The death penalty is torture. Why else are lethal injection victims given muscle relaxants before they are murdered? Most of the “free” world, and certainly the west, has banned the death penalty. We shouldn’t be dragging our heels on this issue. Jon Carroll, in today’s Chronicle, put it better than I can:

The death penalty is wrong because the state (which is to say: us) should not be involved in killing people, particularly in cold blood. To kill people because they killed people — it doesn’t make any actual sense. A society should be slightly more civilized than its sociopaths. Revenge is an understandable emotion. Greed is an understandable emotion too, but stealing is still not legal. The death penalty does not deter and it does not cure.”