George W. Bush, currently hawking his memoirs, has admitted in the new book and in interviews about it that yes indeed, he approved waterboarding of terrorist suspects, believed it was legal, and moreover offers evidence that the information thus acquired saved American lives. W’s opinion on these matter are hardly a surprise, but they have re-energized the defenders of the Administration’s policies of “enhanced interrogation” and rendition of apprehended terror suspects to foreign locales where the interrogation techniques were “enhanced” even more.
“NOW do you agree with the policy?” they ask, as if the answer was obvious. “The information prevented a horrific terrorist attack on Heathrow Airport (in England). See? See?”
Let us assume, just to simplify things, that everything is as President Bush represents. Waterboarding was, by some legitimate analysis, legal. The information saved American lives and prevented terrorist attacks. Do these facts mean that the use of torture—and waterboarding is torture, whether one defines it as such or not—by the United States of America was justified, defensible, and ethical?
No. I don’t think so. I believe that for the United States of America to approve and engage in the use of torture is by definition betrayal of the nation’s core values, and thus threatens its existence as the nation our Founders envisioned as completely as a foreign occupation. I wrote on this topic in 2009…
“…A nation like the United States, and there is none, established on absolute principles of human rights, must never engage in a per se violation of human rights. Of course, it has in the past, always under a mistaken belief that an activity wasn’t such a violation. We countenanced slavery, and segregation, until time and developing ethical sensibilities revealed that it was contradictory to our core values. We engaged in genocidal policies against Native Americans, by applying, and accepting, various rationalizations (“destiny,” “self-defense,” “progress”) to excuse them. Nevertheless, the fact that the nation has periodically failed to meet its own stated ideals does not make more recent failures any less offensive or more acceptable, or decrease the burden of persuasion for those who advocate yet another betrayal of Thomas Jefferson’s words.
If the United States only survives by abandoning the principles that established it, then it hasn’t survived at all. Torture is an absolute wrong for America, like slavery or genocide. It should not and must not be used as a part of a utilitarian equation. No end justifies its use as a means. It must be “off the table” as an option, no matter what the exigency. The “24” type hypotheticals, the Alan Dershowitz “but what if?” arguments, reduce the rationale for or against torture to simple practicalities, and disagreements to matters of degree: “Torture is always wrong to save the life of a hundred soldiers, but to save a thousand New Yorkers from nerve gas, you’d have to consider it.” “No! A thousand isn’t enough, because torture is wrong. But a million lives, well, that’s different!” The point is, it isn’t different—not if torture is absolutely excluded from the options available to a nation established under the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. If Jack Bauer wants to get a terrorist to tell where he planted the ten bombs, he has to find another way…”
And yet…I recognize that this statement was too unequivocal. If I were Jack Bauer (the now retired hero of the torture-friendly Fox series, “24”), and I realized. as he did about three times a day on that show, that I had to use torture to save the U.S, I would do it as my decision, knowing that my actions violated the official policy of the United States. Absolutely no torture is the default position I believe that the nation, and its leaders, must maintain, but it would be foolish to deny ( as my 2009 essay foolishly denied) that there may be a point where a nation has to choose between its principles and survival, and in that rare situation, sacrificing those principles may be necessary and justified, temporarily. From my Ethics Scoreboard post in 2006, when I was thinking more clearly:
“…the United States is not supposed to be like other nations. It was uniquely founded on an ideal of innate human rights and aspirations, and there is no question that the language of the Declaration of Independence cannot be reconciled with the use of torture on human beings. The great experiment that is the United States of America, thanks to Mr. Jefferson, painted itself into an ethical corner at its inception. If it must use tactics to survive that violate the very reasons for its existence, then the nation’s ideals are more illusory than real. But if it doesn’t survive at all because of its refusal to do what is necessary to survive, then the experiment is a failure….The United States has faced this dilemma many times, in a somewhat different form. Every time it has chosen to go to war, and been willing to be responsible for the deaths of civilians in foreign lands, it has served notice that individual human rights will not be spared at the cost of the country itself. We were willing, after all, to use the atom bomb…twice. When critics assail the U.S. now using the principle of Absolutism, they are ignoring both history and their own value systems. Absolutes always have exceptions.
Nonetheless, the nation’s official stance against torture is an important one, because it states a genuine commitment to the ideal of human dignity in accordance with the country’s core values. This is why the gratuitous abuse of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib was so unforgivable; the ideal was betrayed wantonly and for the basest reasons: disrespect, vengeance, cruelty, and ignorance. But no one should pretend that our commitment to that ideal has ever included a willingness to perish rather than violate it. The ideal of rejecting torture is important; torture is inhuman, horrible, despicable. The ideal must be stated as an absolute; we aim for it, so that we are not tempted to give it up too easily. But we will give it up temporarily if necessary, and for better or worse, all of us, in our hearts, know that we will.”
This argument does not justify a policy of torture, however, and that is what the Bush Administration allowed. Stopping a bombing in a British airport is not justification for abandoning American values. What Bush approved was not a temporary, reluctant, desperation measure when our existence was imperiled. It was, instead, a complete violation of America’s commitment to the value of human life and dignity that had no defined limits. We would torture, not as only as a last resort, not only to preserve the United States when destruction was imminent, but as one more way to get useful information from terrorists.
That decision was corrupting, unethical and wrong. President Bush allowed American to surrender what makes it exceptional, not for the survival of Jefferson’s creation, but for Heathrow airport.
That was wrong.