Topic: Society

No American Torturers

The United States Government, the intelligence community, the army, and, yes, the self-righteous blow-hards who blithely have advocated the use of torture on suspected terrorists all must accept their share of responsibility for the sickening photos of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated by American soldiers. The damage that these photos do to the image of America around the world is incalculable, but the damage to American ideals is devastating.

The Declaration of Independence, the mission statement for our nation, asserts that all human beings have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is a statement of respect for humanity, and this country has paid a steep price every time its citizens have ignored it, the essential justification for America’s existence. Thus one current defense being mounted for the torturers, that they hadn’t been informed on the substance of the Geneva Convention, is meritless. Americans should not need to be instructed by an international document to know that mistreating and degrading powerless human beings is a betrayal of American ideals.

Not that the soldiers are the only ones at fault; indeed, they may not even be primarily at fault. War, by its every nature, rips civilization from its natural ethical mooring. In the need to persuade ordinary human beings to kill for a greater good, the military must break down all the inhibitions against that act that have been established over a lifetime. In the process, other ethical assumptions are prone to become collateral damage. If it is acceptable to kill the enemy, why is it unacceptable to torture him? Once the military has done its job of turning a human being into a killer for principle, it must also take care that the soldier retains a minimal level of humanity, caring, and decency. The alternative is to create monsters. For this abomination to occur, military leadership had to fail in its basic obligations to the soldiers as well as the captured. It is completely predictable, and well documented throughout the history of war, that some otherwise ordinary soldiers will commit atrocities against the enemy without strong and ethical leadership and careful supervision. Americans are still human beings, and subject to the same behavioral truths as Germans, Russians, Chinese, Koreans, and Iraqis.

Even in utilitarian terms, it is unethical to torture and humiliate the enemy to no purpose. The photos unveiled on “60 Minutes” appeared to show the infliction of pain for its own sake, which is indefensible. Preliminary investigations, however, now indicate that American intelligence officers may have encouraged such barbarism in the hopes that the prisoners would “break” and divulge useful information. If this is representative thinking among American international intelligence personnel (“No, we don’t torture, of course not!”…wink, wink…), then it has to be rooted out, condemned, and changed. America cannot use the tools of totalitarianism and oppression to pursue justice and freedom. This is more than a case of the ends not being justified by the means; this is a case of the means rendering the end goal an empty sham.

It will be interesting (but perhaps not interesting enough to subject oneself to the trauma of listening to him) to hear how slash-and burn radio talk show host Michael Savage reacts to these photos. He has vocally endorsed torture in the interest of fighting terrorism. Now that it has arrived, does he like the way it looks? Does it make him proud of his country? Can he really pretend to reconcile intentional depravity and cruelty with the ideals of Jefferson, Adams, and Madison?

President Bush has pointedly avoided calls for “apologies” for Administration misjudgments, and properly so. Leadership necessarily involves hard decisions under difficult circumstances, and an apology implies that every decision ought to be the one that is proven the best by subsequent events. That is a false standard. No leader should apologize for any decision made in good faith, with due consideration, based on the information available at the time.

But the President should apologize now. He should apologize, on behalf of America and all its citizens, to Iraq and the world. He should apologize for despicable actions taken in our name that undermine the ideals and the vision that has guided this country since 1776. He should say that America is sorry, and pledge that nothing like this will ever happen again.

And each of us… parent and child, teacher and student, elected official and voter, general and soldier…should embrace that pledge, and make it so.

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