Torture and the War on Terror

By O'Brien, Ed | Social Education, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Torture and the War on Terror


O'Brien, Ed, Social Education


IN AN ARTICLE TITLED "On the Moral Implications of Torture and Exemplary Assassination," intelligence and research specialist Paul Blackstock shares a story from the Algerian War, where both the French and the Algerians were often accused of torture. It indicates the impact torture may have:

   The Captain's Dilemma
   A French captain, who was
   opposed to torture because he was
   a devout Catholic, was faced with
   a dilemma. A known terrorist had
   been captured and reliable sources
   informed the captain that this man
   had planted a bomb that would go
   off at noon the next day, probably
   killing French officers and wounding
   others. Time was running out.
   Should he order the torture needed
   to obtain the location of the bomb?
   He worried and worried over this
   decision and finally, ordered the
   use of the torture and the bomb
   was neutralized. The next day the
   captain committed suicide. (1)

Blackstock writes: "The use of torture has very real and damaging effects on private individuals who employ such means, as well as feedback effects on the society from which they came." One can only speculate what the impact will be on the soldiers who committed the acts at the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib, as well as the feedback effects of these acts on American society. The consequences of their actions are likely to be long lasting.

What is Torture?

Torture is something that we typically think would not be perpetrated by Americans, but is carried out by repressive foreign governments. In fact, after the Abu Ghraib photos were made public, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials were quick to call the acts "abuses" and refrained from using the term "'torture." No nation wants to be regarded as a "torturer."

As defined in the UN Convention

Against Torture, torture is any act which inflicts severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, and is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining information or a confession from him. (2)

One hundred and thirty countries, including the U.S. have signed this treaty. Torture is also outlawed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 5), which states: "No one should be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Additionally, the U.S. Army Manual specifically forbids "the use of force, mental torture, threats, insults or exposure to unpleasant and inhuman treatment of any kind." (3)

The U.S. has signed the four Geneva Conventions, which expressly prohibit any kind of physical or psychological coercion and torture or inhuman treatment of prisoners of war. (4) In 1996, Congress also passed the War Crimes Act to ban all war crimes, which are referred to as grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions?

But does the Geneva Convention apply to the War on Terror? The U.S. government had previously taken the position that such covenants did not apply to the prisoners taken during the war in Afghanistan because it was not a war against a nation but rather against terrorist groups, Al Qaeda and the Taliban (which the U.S. had not recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan). The detainees from that war were taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to the U.S. government, international covenants do not apply to this U.S. military base, although human rights organizations and others criticize this position. In fact, it should be noted that the Convention Against Torture explicitly says that there are no extenuating circumstances, including war or other public emergency, that can ever be used to justify torture. (6)

U.S. officials have said that the Geneva Conventions do apply to Iraq, as the situation there has resulted from a conventional war.

After September 11

To understand the ongoing debate about the interrogation techniques that should be used on detainees, it is necessary to examine the events of September 11, 2001, and their ramifications. …

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