The U.S. did torture, and it did not work

Lost amidst coverage of the Boston and West horrors was the publication of a long-awaited, exhaustive report on the U.S.’s use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11. Which is too bad, because it deserves the attention of all Americans. (It wasn’t entirely lost: The New York Times covered it, while right-wing sources ignored it entirely, far as I can tell.) Decisively, the 577-page assessment puts to rest two of the most prevalent untruths about torture that were promulgated by the Bush administration, and which persist like fungus among the fully Foxified. The first is the claim, made repeatedly by Dick Cheney and George Bush, that the U.S. did not engage in torture. Clearly, by any definition, it did. Second is the belief that torture yielded critical information that couldn’t have been obtained in other ways. Clearly, it didn’t. And, clearly, you can’t have it both ways: “We didn’t torture; and, by the way, it worked.” We did, and it didn’t.

Lest people think the report was produced by some lefty organization, it wasn’t. Co-chair of the non-partisan group was Asa Hutchinson, a staunch conservative some may remember as one of the prosecutors of the Clinton impeachment. The full report can be read at detaineetaskforce.org; it’s comprehensive, and unhesitatingly frank.

The dishonesty of advocates of torture done in our name, now presumably ended by President Obama, is staggering. Redefining the word, they figured, was all it took to deny doing it. This, despite the fact that the U.S. had previously joined the world in declaring waterboarding torture and a violation of the Geneva Conventions. A war crime, in other words. And, as the report makes clear, we did a heck of a lot worse than waterboarding.

It doesn’t take much to cut through the justifications defenders have put forth on behalf of torture. One need only remember how it’s been used since the darkest of dark ages: forcing people to say things that aren’t true. It did so in the Inquisition, in Salem, the Hanoi Hilton, Cambodia, in Saddam Hussein’s torture rooms. That’s its specialty: producing false confessions. Ask John McCain. Given that history, on what basis could anyone trust information so obtained?

But, people ask, what about that ticking time bomb? Wouldn’t you torture someone to find out where it is? When countless lives are at stake, doesn’t that override some silly bleeding-heart moral compunctions? Well, maybe so, if there were an iota of evidence that it would work. First of all, there’s never been, that I’m aware of, a credible, undisputed accounting of such a situation. (The report addresses that, too.) But let’s just think about it for a minute: in a real-life ticking time-bomb scenario, with a person in custody who knew where it was, wouldn’t that be exactly the situation in which the captive would lie through his teeth? If you were a committed terrorist, wouldn’t you? Because if there were literally no time to spare before the bomb went off, how perfect to send people off in the wrong direction; and it’d be too late by the time they figured it out, right? If you were willing to die for whatever your cause is, isn’t that the way to do it? And heck, if the bomb went off there’d be no more reason to torture you, so you might not even die. On its face, that oft-used argument makes no sense. Jack Bauer, let’s keep in mind, was a fictional character. So were the guys he tortured.

The report specifically addresses claims about the positive role of torture in getting Osama bin Laden: it debunks them. In addition, it discusses the impact of false information obtained by U.S. torture programs, and details non-abusive techniques that have successfully extracted reliable information. Importantly, it also elucidates the damage our torture program did to our standing in the world. It’s really worth a read, especially for those who prefer to cling to Foxhoods.

I’m enough of a results-based pragmatist to admit that if there were evidence that torture is the only way to obtain critical information in an immediate life-or-death situation, I could accept using it. But facts are facts: when Dick Cheney convinced a frightened George Bush to authorize the use of torture, the only thing he accomplished was to make us no better than the people we were fighting, and to hand them the gift of more hate-based recruitment than they already had.

Sid Schwab lives in Everett. Send emails to columnsid@gmail.com

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