Archive for Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ideals at stake in torture debate

May 22, 2011


“I would find myself trussed up and left for hours in ropes, my biceps bound tightly with several loops to cut off my circulation and the end of the rope cinched behind my back, pulling my shoulders and elbows unnaturally close together. It was incredibly painful.” — Sen. John McCain from his book, “Faith of My Fathers”

“(John McCain) doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works. — former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum

For the record, John McCain was learning “how enhanced interrogation works” when Rick Santorum was still trying to find a good acne cream.

Yes, the Arizona senator, once famed for a maverick integrity, has evidenced a disheartening flexibility of principle in recent years. He has reversed himself on offshore drilling, gays in the military, and even on the question of whether he really is a maverick.

But in one conviction, McCain, a former Navy flier held for more than five years as a prisoner in North Vietnam, has remained steadfast: Torture is wrong. He came to this conclusion through a regimen of beatings, degradations and humiliations.

Santorum’s bizarre comment, made last week in a radio interview, was in response to a recent McCain speech in which he disputed the claim by dead-enders of the last administration that so-called “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture) authorized by President Bush led to the information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. McCain also took them on in a column for The Washington Post.

“I know from personal experience,” he wrote, “that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.”

Contrary to what has become an article of faith for some, said McCain, torture seems to have played no role in the finding of bin Laden.

But what if it had? Would that end justify this means? Or does framing the debate in terms of efficacy not miss the point entirely?

Even McCain concedes torture “sometimes produces good intelligence,” but the question is whether that intelligence is worth the price we pay for it. Absent the “ticking bomb” scenario so often evoked by torture enthusiasts (and has anyone ever seen that scenario outside an episode of “24”?) it is hard to see how it could be.

The price, after all, is our national character, our good name, our reputation and reality as a nation of laws. The price is to become like Cuba, like Syria, like North Korea, like Iran, a nation of hoods and shackles and dungeons and disappearances. The price is to surrender any last remaining illusion that we are better than that.

Some, eager to have hands shiny with the blood of enemies, will consider it a bargain even at those prices. Expedience is their watchword. Let us torture to stop the ticking bomb. Let us torture to find the madman. Let us torture just to see what information we get.

But the struggle we wage is not simply a physical one, not simply a battle to save lives. No, this is a struggle between competing ways of seeing the world, a struggle of rival ideals. Some will say the stakes are too high for us to worry about venerating ideals.

Actually, they are too high not to.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on


cato_the_elder 7 years ago

Suffering the indignity of being praised by Leonard Pitts would be torture indeed.

Getaroom 7 years ago

Cato: an uncalled for commentary on your part and is low - even for you. This was a well thought out article and makes very important points to contemplate as this nation attempts regain some dignity that was lost in the Bush years.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years ago

As far as cato is concerned, all issues over torture were settled by the series "24."

cato_the_elder 7 years ago

Sure, for someone like you who apparently can't grasp the point of my one-sentence comment.

jayhawklawrence 7 years ago

The torture debate is as much an endictment of the current leadership of the Republican Party and their loss of moral navigation as anything else.

It is an embarassment and a violation of traditional American values that we are even seeing this debate taking place. It damages our image in the world in ways that guys like Krauthammer and Cheney seem incapable of understanding.

I am proud of John McCain for having the courage to stand apart from his party leadership and do the right thing.

ksriver2010 7 years ago

We already are "a nation of hoods and shackles and dungeons and disappearances". Namely the war on drugs, and the Patriot Act, which Dems and Obama still approved for renewal. And "probable cause", with its famous recent story of the cops chasing someone into an apartment building, going to the wrong apartment, busting down the door and arresting someone for partaking in his own home.

gkerr 7 years ago

Most Americans are opposed to clear cut torture under any circumstance. The question of course is the use of enhanced interrogation techniques to coerce intelligence from enemy combatants. How are these forms of coercion different from torture? A nasty business deciding whether water boarding is torture, or forcing pork down the throats of folks who look at pork as unclean food, or forcing them to live in cells with dogs who are devil animals to them, or threatening all manner of mayhem which is not followed through with, or reduced rations which barely sustain but do not sate, or piping in loud rock music or propaganda until the tongue is loosened.

I don't know the answer to these questions and I don't know how they should be decided- who decides what is and what is not torture? Some things are clear- to beat painfully, to starve, to maim, poison, stab or cutoff parts, pull out finger nails, cut off heads, shoot to intimidate others, etc- these should be beyond the pale for Americans. Water boarding would terrify me and break me I think but it probably is not brutal torture.

When drones are used to assasinate, maim, and kill enemies and to intimidate survivors, when Seal Teams are used to assassinate enemies and war criminals, we seem quick to approve, and I do approve. But is it really not worse than sleep deprivation, markedly reduced rations, loud music, canines, threats not followed through with, Taboo food stuffs, etc.? I think Not.

War is hell and should be avoided at nearly all costs. War causes us to choose between degrees of evil and thus should be an absolute last resort of self preservation. Is Iraq and Afghanistan really necessary in light of all the evils unleashed? I don't know. Gkerr

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