Bush’s Torture Admission, Absolutism, and America’s Survival

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 yetI 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.


12 thoughts on “Bush’s Torture Admission, Absolutism, and America’s Survival

  1. Gutty column, Jack. I use the torture memo in my business ethics class, and most of the students side with Bush. I’m reluctant to jump on him, because I feel (not think) that there may at the time have seemed a choice between massive loss of life and using a method that the US military uses on our own troops in training (the so-called SERE course).

    Here’s a case where I might have reasoned with Bentham and not with Kant–assuming that waterboarding is torture–which I agree it is, but the White House lawyers said it wasn’t.

  2. First off, Jack. Waterboarding is not torture. You say that America should have a firm policy against torture as a legitimized form of interrogation… and I agree. I’m sure George Bush does, too. But “enhanced interrogation” (which is a dumb term, BTW) is not so much physical torment as physical distress with the element of fear inherent that it might proceed to actual torture or death.

    If the subject is a known, dangerous terrorist who has information that may mean the difference of life or death for many innocent people, are you going to smile at him, read him his rights, get him a cheap lawyer from the ACLU and ask him “Please, Mr. Mohammed, won’t you kindly tell us where and how your underprivileged comrades intend to behead my wife and children?” Not likely.

    You don’t want to use actual torture, because- morality aside- it seldom works well. A man under torture will say anything to relieve the suffering; true or false. But shock and fear, applied correctly, can do the job. It’s psychological. But it DEPENDS on fear and uncertainty of your ultimate intentions to be effective.

    Therefore, to publically disavow any “mistreatment” of prisoners at all- for any reason- is counterproductive to interrogators and our national security. It’s as foolish as setting a public time limit for troop withdrawals… and for much the same reason. In fact, interrogators may, out of desperation, then resort to actual torture because this psychological tool has been taken from them. When the lives of thousands of people may rest with your ability to make this scum-of-the-earth talk, you do what you must.

    In such a case, faced with such consequences, ugly things can occur. And those who are driven to perform them endanger their souls. They must be allowed some logical latitude in order to do their job of protecting the innocent. Again; uncertainty and fear on the part of the prisoner is vital.

    Another thing needs mentioning. Waterboarding occurred in only three interrogations. In all cases, the men involved were top terrorist leaders, essentially stateless entities and were already international outlaws by their bloody deeds. AND they possessed information pertaining to imminent acts of terrorism. The wonder is that those interrrogators were professional enough to abstain from truly harsh measures under those conditions. They shouldn’t be condemned, but praised for their professionalism… which, BTW, succeeded in saving many lives.

    • Waterboarding meets the international and generally accepted definition of torture which is the infliction of pain to bend an individual to one’s will. I could care less about lawyer-constructed hair-splitting–if waterboarding isn’t torture, neither is putting flaming splinters under the fingernails. Come on. Enhanced interrogation is as much a euphemism as “pro choice.” We treat terrorists like we do POW’s, serial killers and child molesters…like a civilized country treats fellow human beings.Any thing else degrades all of us. I don’t like to be ashamed of my country. I’m ashamed that we emulated the Idi Amins and Stalins and stooped to such cruelty–without due process. I love Dirty Harry, but when he stepped on the maniac’s leg to get the location of the girl, he crossed the line, and so did Bush.

  3. Jack:

    “International opinion” is largely the province of dull minded Western academics abetting Third World dictators- who use actual torture as a matter of course. Personally, I don’t put serial killers, child molestors OR terrorists in the category of “my fellow man”. I’d afford that status to an honorable POW… but not them.

    Still, I wouldn’t favor deliberately inflicting torment upon them. Certainly not any legal condonement. But if I have to choose between the life of one of them and that of an innocent child, the choice is obvious. This is not theory, but real world decision. Even then, it’s a choice no decent man would want to make.

    Therefore, I stand in favor of granting interrogators in the field some descretion in dealing with the worst villains on Earth. Such creatures as terrorists, pillaging and murdering under no flag, have traditionally been regarded as beyond the law and have usually been treated as such. Protecting them under a rigid interpretation of the very codes they themselves despise and wish to destroy (along with America itself) is folly, not morality.

    • It’s a defensible argument, except that it is contrary to principles of American justice. We don’t inflict punishment without due process,and we Do place human rights above the risk of harm to innocents. And that keeps us from sliding down the slope to Fascism and dictatorship. I stand with Jefferson and Madison and Kant on this one.

      We know what torture is, Steven. Calling waterboarding anything but is calling duck a goose,and it doesn’t wash.

  4. Mr. Pilling’s opinion: “’International opinion’ is largely the province of dull minded Western academics abetting Third World dictators.” ?? I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from arguing with someone who so defines the United Nations, however flawed with self-interest (as would be any organization that exists in a tower of Babel in a concatenation of cultures), so I will settle for presenting the definition that makes sense — intellectually, morally, and ethically — to me.

    “The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) came into force in June 1987. The most relevant articles are Articles 1, 2, 3, and the first paragraph of Article 16.
    Article 1
    1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, . . . . when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

  5. The last time I looked, the UN Human Rights Commission was being chaired by Iran! So much for its viability. And, unfortunately, it only mirrors that of the United Nations as a body. The original intent of the UN charter was to create a body of civilized nations to uphold civilized values around the world. Since then, it’s become a repository for broken dictatorships and murderous rogue states to leech off of others (America, predominantly) while plotting their downfall.

    Once again; I support those principles and those inherent in our own heritage… which was the chief inspiration for the UN declaration. But we’re dealing here, not with honorable people, but with treacherous thugs. It’s also a point of the traditional Law of Nations that stateless pirates and insurgents be given a short shrift. I’d say that our coddling of captured terrorists at Guantanemo is itself counterproductive. Likewise with our incredible indulgence with such individuals as the Somali pirates, among others. Same thing… except that the terrorists are more prevalent and dangerous.

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the point of waterboarding being torture.

    • The composition of the UN’s human rights commission could not be more irrelevant to the U.S.’s own values and conduct, as I’m sure you will agree. I yield to no one in my total contempt for the United Nations, a thoroughly corrupt, hypocritical, anti-American organization, but what it is or isn’t also has no bearing on the justice of what we do.

      Nor does the character, or assumed character, of those we capture. Like it or not, the US does not embrace an “only good, nice, peaceful people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” ethics, but one that says that all people have the same rights. The Law of Nations is not the same as the values of the U.S. We can’t distain foreign laws and values when it serves our purposes, then rely on un-American standards when it gives us conveniently more leeway in mistreating our enemies.

      I don’t want my country attaching electric wires to the nipples of a any human being in my name; nor beating and raping “dishonorable” terrorist suspect women, nor having rats crawl over them after they’ve been coated with cheese, nor hang flaming tires around the necks of “thugs”, nor use the rack and wheel, or Iron Maiden, or Tiger Cage, nor strap them open-legged on a table while a laser approaches their groin (Mr. Bond).

      These things are the MO of bad guys, villains, sadists and North Koreans, not the good guys, not Americans. John Wayne refused to shoot anyone in the back, no matter how rotten they were. Being a hero is tough—you have to act like one. Torture doesn’t fit the role, not by a longshot.

  6. Jack: We don’t do those things. At least, not as legal policy. A large number of other nations do. That includes the ones that attack us through the “third parties” of terrorist organizations. When I was referring to the Law of Nations, I meant the traditional tenets that go back centuries- not the present day farce.

  7. Talk about missing the point. The author’s sense of ethics is nothing but a house of cards which comes tumbling down if the wind blows hard enough. To hear it from the author, torture is wrong…right up until is isn’t anymore, and torture is ok as long as it isn’t official policy. When does hypocrisy become ethical I wonder.

    • About when trolling becomes ethical. You were just warned about gratuitous snottiness. Last chance to dial it back. Absolutes are absolute, until they aren’t Absolutely. If you can get your mind around that one, then stay out of any difficult real world management or leadership job, especially those involving government, politics, law, war, or international affairs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.