Excuses for a Torture State

Since the release of four formerly top secret memos last week, we have been bombarded from the right by excuses.

One excuse tries to downplay the torture found in the memo with snark like, “Oh…bugs in a box. That’s torture?”

The flaw in this excuse is obvious. That the memos describe some non-torture means of coercing a confession in no way diminishes the fact that some of the techniques are bona fide torture. No matter how you parse it, slice it, or relabel it, waterboarding IS torture. Waterboarding doesn’t get downgraded to “harsh” simply because it may be preceded by “walling” or “bug-boxing.”

The most prevalent excuse goes like this: “But, but, but, it gave us valuable information!” Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been on the front lines offering this excuse:

Senior Bush administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and cheered by many Congressional Republicans, are fighting a rear-guard action in defense of their record. Only by using the harshest methods, they insist, did the intelligence agency get the information it needed to round up Qaeda killers and save thousands of American lives.

This amounts to little more than saying the ends justifies the torture. This type of consequentialist moral reasoning fails because it can be used to justify anything—torture, murder, mass murder, invasion, war—simply upon feeling threatened. If governments are allowed to disregard international treaties and laws in this way, it renders such laws meaningless.

So…an Iranian court has convicted U.S. citizen Roxana Saberi of spying on Iran for the U.S. Given the war-like rhetoric used against Iran over the last eight years, the Iranian government should certainly feel threatened by us. Doesn’t Cheney’s excuses give Iran a free pass to waterboard a confession out of Ms. Saberi? If the end justifies the torture, the U.S. has lost standing to criticize any government for torturing or murdering.

The “extraordinary circumstance” defense doesn’t work either. If torture was justified in some circumstances, it would be codified into law. I cannot murder someone on the street because I am suspicious that they are “out to get me.” But I can kill someone who is literally poised to murder me. The law makes an exception for self defense. Likewise, there are circumstances (like self-defense) under which it is legal for one country to take up arms against another country. Therefore, if some exceptional circumstance justified torture, it must be (and would be) codified into law.

But there are no such exceptions for torture. Article 2, paragraph 2 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (which has been signed and ratified by the U.S.) explicitly states:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

No exceptions. Period. So to the pundits I say, knock it off with the excuses. And while you’re at it, switch to a diet that’s high in moral fiber.

The ends don’t justify the torture. As one of the architects of the U.S.’s Torture Years, Cheney is a criminal along with other Bush administration officials who justified and authorized torture. The U.S. will remain a diminished country until these folks are tried for their crimes.

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