Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thoughts on the torture report

One of the biggest news stories from this week was the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture.  Since the entire 6,000 page report is classified, reporting has focused on the 525 portion of the executive summary.  For a good overview see the Wiki or Andrew Sullivan.

Two quick points before we get to the heart of the matter.

1) One of the objections to the report has been that none of the participants were interviewed.  Given the cost--$40 million--and the time involved--5 years--this is an oversight, though not one which invalidates the report's findings.  The documented evidence is damning enough.

2) The committee ought to have tried to placate Republican concerns to so as to ensure that the report was bipartisan.  Failure to do so has allowed this to become yet another partisan issue.

Now, onto the report itself.  When Osama Bin Laden was finally found and killed, we were told that the only reason we were able to discover his whereabouts was because of torture--or, rather, enhanced interrogation, that Orwellian neologism preferred by proponents of the procedure.  This turned out to be a lie.

In addition to correcting various falsehoods of the Bush Administration, the CIA and many media pawns, the report considers the efficacy of torture: "The CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees."

This should be rather obvious.  As I pointed out in my reflection on the death of OBL: "The problem--from a practical point of view, and setting aside the moral trepidation we should feel toward the procedure--is that there is no way to distinguish between good and bad information when it is extracted via torture."  This was confirmed by the report.

But while the efficacy of torture is important, it's troubling that so little attention is being paid to the ethical aspect.  This is representative of the manner in which we discuss most moral issues; lacking a coherent moral framework, we are reduced to consequentialism.  So torture is bad, not because it is a violation of the human dignity of the person, but because it is not useful. 

As the Catechism puts it: "Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity."

Terrorism and torture are condemned in the same point because they stem from the same immorality: failing to see people as worthy of respect in and of themselves, seeing them only as means to an end.  The people in the World Trade Center were only pawns to be sacrificed to achieve the end goal: embroiling the United States in a war until it became bankrupt.  The "terrorists" are a source of information, nothing more; anything we can do to them so as to extract knowledge is valid.  I use quotes not to scare, but for precision: as the report notes, we killed a man only to later conclude that he was not who we thought he was.

The report makes harrowing reading, specifically the examples of torture and abuse of prisoners. I can only compare it to the Gulag Archipelago, chronicled by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  To be clear, the Soviet torture regime was much more extensive than our own system, and to conflate the two would be an injustice.  Still, reading examples from the report, one realizes that similar ones could have been furnished from Solzhenitsyn's books.

There is a distinct difference between a good nation and a self-righteous one.  The former is so concerned with the good that is clings to it, even when the consequences might bring it harm.  The latter is so convinced of its own goodness that it readily justifies any action it wishes to take.

The report's revelations of injustice are deeply disturbing.  Perhaps more disturbing still is that these justices are being passionately defended.  The rebuttal seems to be: we didn't torture, but if we did, the terrorists deserved it--and we saved lives. 

We are a deeply self-righteous nation. 

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