Magazine article Commonweal

The Scandal That Wasn't: Why Haven't We Confronted Torture?

Magazine article Commonweal

The Scandal That Wasn't: Why Haven't We Confronted Torture?

Article excerpt

Mark Danner called it "the frozen scandal." He was talking about torture. "We're doing it; we know about it; we do not have legal or moral ways to confront it," he said. "We are stuck at revelation."

The editor of Torture and Truth (New York Review of Books, 2004), a volume of official government documents accompanied by his analyses, Danner was speaking at a New York Public Library panel discussion on "The Question of Torture." Over a thousand people had gathered on June 1 for this particular effort at "revelation."

The Bush administration has consistently denied that torture by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay is officially sanctioned. Such practices that have been verified (for example, at Abu Ghraib) the administration attributes to loose cannons among the military's lower ranks. CIA outsourcing of U.S. detainees--incarceration in countries where torture occurs--has also been reported by Raymond Bonner in the New York Times, for example, and Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, and a paper trail linking policy and practice between the loose cannons in the ranks and the big cannons in the administration has been steadily emerging.

Still, public reaction, despite the impressive crowd that turned out for the panel discussion, remains tepid. The panelists, to be sure, appeared foursquare opposed to torture as such; but much of what they said may help explain the in-difference of many Americans to the cruel, and sometimes deadly, methods used to interrogate prisoners captured in the war on terrorism.

The evening's discussion revealed three obstacles to a more robust public reaction. First, there is ambiguity about what constitutes torture. Second, there is a predilection for focusing on what circumstances justify torture, which, in turn, generates the notion that a line can be drawn and maintained between acceptable and unacceptable practices. Third, the war on terrorism has lowered the barriers to the use of torture.

Do we know torture when we see it? Does "coercive interrogation" constitute torture? Mark Bowden, a journalist who has written extensively on the subject, consistently used that phrase without clarifying whether he would call it torture (see his "The Dark Art of Interrogation," Atlantic Monthly, October 2003). Since interrogation of prisoners is allowed, how intrusive or coercive can it be before, turning cruel and even deadly, it is against the law? He pointed, for example, to the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a high-level Al Qaeda leader captured in Pakistan in 2003. After some weeks in detention, Mohammad was said to be providing useful information to the United States. Bowden calculated that some measure of coercion had been used because in the war on terrorism "information is everything," and Mohammad, the head of Al Qaeda operations, was the man thought to have planned the 9/11 attacks. How should the need to prevent future terrorist attacks or to break up terrorist networks be weighed against the use (and abuse) of coercive methods?

Thus was the "ticking bomb" scenario introduced into the conversation. This well-worn hypothetical, unleashed by philosopher Michael Walzer in a 1971 essay in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, imagines a terrorist in custody who knows of a bomb timed to explode in the immediate future. Where is the bomb? In order to extract this information and save the lives of hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of innocent people, can the prisoner be tortured? The scenario has been the subject of infinite variations: the bomb could be nuclear; the attack could be with biological weapons; the people could be school children. Whether or not Mohammad knew about a "ticking bomb," what if he had information about men constructing one? Can he be tortured? Was he?

Elaine Scarry, Harvard professor and author of The Body in Pain (Oxford University Press), drew the obvious point: Talking about torture and parsing permissible conditions "makes it plausible. …

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