When did torture become OK?
Published January 19, 2005

Back in June of 2004, after the story of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib came to light, I wrote a column in this space hoping that our President and his administration would move forward with serious investigations and would repudiate the linguistic legerdemain used to justify abuse and mistreatment throughout the American military. It will surprise none of you when I admit that I expected nothing of the sort to happen, and it hasn’t. Even worse—and I didn’t expect this at all—President Bush has nominated one of the architects of this dangerous policy shift to be his new Attorney General.

Alberto Gonzales, the White House council for Bush these past few years, was contacted in 2002 to explore the legal limits of torture, and to find out just how far American soldiers and interrogators could go in their questioning of terrorists and enemy combatants. By carefully parsing the exact definition of torture, Gonzales pushed the envelope for accepted questioning techniques in this country.

Furthermore, he sought to move the provisions of the Geneva Conventions to the side by ridiculing those decades-old agreements for various outdated elements in them. Common practice in the international community acknowledges that times have changed since the Conventions were drafted, and that certain provisions in them seem, as Gonzales said, “quaint.” This does not mean that we can ignore the Conventions or decide that these few clauses—which, I might add, are hardly at the heart of the provisions—exempt us from the whole.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) monitors detained persons around the world. Because of the neutrality and confidentiality of the Committee, most governments are willing to allow the ICRC access to even their most sensitive prisons and detention areas. Thus the Red Cross has been monitoring detentions at places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Though the abuses at these places are only now coming to light in the public sphere, they have been reported to the United States government by the ICRC since before that time. All the more reason to doubt our public officials’ claims of ignorance in this matter.

Though terrorists and insurgents do not fight within the rules of war, once they are captives of the United States government, our responsibilities under international humanitarian law are not simply void. Certainly not every aspect of the Geneva Convention or other law applies to terrorists—no one is suggesting that, nor that we not interrogate the prisoners. It is vital, however, that we adhere to the norms that have been established over the last decades as the baseline for humane treatment of prisoners. This is especially true if those prisoners are guilty of breaking those laws themselves.

Since the Abu Ghraib abuses and others came to light, we’ve heard a constant stream from the conservative media about how they weren’t too bad. These fall into two categories: the first argues that the torture that occurred was hardly worse than schoolboy hazing, neglecting to mention that we usually frown on hazing that causes deaths. The other category basically claims that nothing we’ve done matches the boundless cruelty of the people we are fighting, who have made a horrific routine of decapitating and otherwise tormenting Western and Iraqi captives.

That’s the best we can do? I’d hate to think that we’re only the good guys by comparison to the some of the worst bad guys the world has ever seen. I’d also hate to think that we might use the sick depravity of these extremists to undermine the values that have made America such a stand-out in this world for so long a time.

The defenders of our current practices would have us believe, in effect, that vigilantism is an acceptable means to an end, if our security is on the line. Their arguments in relation to international law are tantamount to saying that a murderer can be treated as we please because he or she has broken the law, or has acted in an inhuman, abhorrent fashion. Yet, our system of justice does not proceed in this fashion; even the most terrible criminals get the same treatment and access to the same rights.

The analogy is not, admittedly, a direct one, but despite the horrific nature of their crimes, terrorists should be treated with basic humanity, because we are better than they are, because we are civilized people, and because only by showing the world that these things are true can we ever hope to win the long-term struggle to swing the hearts and minds of the world to our cause: the victory of democracy and freedom.