Column: Say ‘no’ to torture

By Dan Mollison

In our 12 years of school, many of us have begun each school day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The words of the Pledge have been drilled into us. But given the recent debates over U.S. torture practices against terrorists, it seems that its message of “liberty and justice for all” has not stuck.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former victim of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, refused on Dec. 4 to back down from his demand that the White House endorse his proposed ban on the use of torture against terrorists. McCain’s measure, which is included as an amendment to a defense bill, includes specific language banning “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” against any person in U.S. custody. The White House first responded by threatening to veto the bill, citing the importance of national security. But after the Senate approved McCain’s measure by a vote of 90 to 9, the White House has begun to seek a compromise.

While it can be difficult to see how torture can be justified, it’s understandable that Bush would be hesitant to expand torture laws. The U.S. has used torture as a means of extracting information from war prisoners for decades, and these methods have proven to be very successful. Like it or not, there’s no question that America’s use of torture has strengthened our national security. It’s also important to remember that the victims that we’re talking about here aren’t exactly following the same “rules of war” as the rest of the international community; they have had no hesitation in targeting and killing innocent people, including children. But regardless of torture’s benefits for Americans and the despicable nature of terrorists, these practices raise far too many problems and inconsistencies for them to be continued by the U.S.

One of torture’s fundamental issues is that it occurs in uncontrolled environments by government agents who might not always act in the interests of the people. Because torture is never “officially endorsed” by the government, the U.S. can’t have ultimate authority over who is tortured, why they’re tortured and what methods are being employed against them. The lack of protocol over torture practices leaves serious room for abuse by U.S. agents. How can we know that a soldier isn’t choosing to torture an inmate out of racism or a feeling of religious superiority rather than a desire to extract information from him? Allowing U.S. regulations on torture practices to continue to remain ambiguous makes torture for reasons other than national security far too easy to achieve.

There is also some doubt regarding how much we can trust the validity of information gathered through torture. As McCain noted, some of the intelligence “used in one of the president’s speeches … concerning the threat of weapons of mass destruction … was later recanted.” This apparent reference to the false WMD intelligence gathered from a detainee at Guantanamo Bay is not only poignant but has some logic behind it. Part of the training included in terrorist training camps is brainwashing. Terrorists are led to believe that the West is evil, and that the holiest act they can ever do is to give their own lives in an effort to kill Westerners. Would a terrorist who believes so strongly that America should be destroyed that he is willing to sacrifice his life for its demise give reliable information while being tortured? In his eyes, to do so would mean “siding with the devil.” I’m not an expert on intelligence gathered through torture, but it seems to me that it would be very difficult to achieve reliable results.

Despite the significant advantages that the torture of terrorists can offer us, it is entirely hypocritical for a nation founded on principles of freedom and equality to torture those in its custody. Holding ourselves to a higher standard than terrorists may be frustrating, especially when we remember the innocent lives that have been lost at their hands, but to do otherwise only lowers us to their level. America needs to stay true to the ethical principles we so openly embrace.

Dan Mollison is a junior in LAS. His column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]