The torture question

February 20, 2005|By Karen J. Greenberg

RECENTLY, the popular TV show 24 showed a wrongfully accused American counterterrorism expert being tortured with a stun gun by her American employer. It was a cruel spectacle heightened by the reality that the viewer knew the victim was innocent. But as unpleasant as 24's characterization of American torture was, it is only a small window into the disturbing nature of America's torture policy.

Even the horrific pictures smuggled out of Abu Ghraib prison gave Americans only a glimpse of U.S. torture policy. They did not reflect the full story. The details of the torture, which have only trickled out, include forced group masturbation, electric shock, involuntary enemas, rape committed with a phosphorescent stick and the burning of cigarettes in inmates' ears. And, of course, these details do not include the Guantanamo excesses, which is where the story began.

One story, as noted by the Associated Press, is about a female guard who used red ink to trick a detainee into thinking he was being smeared with menstrual blood. The purpose was to make the detainee feel unclean. Such details are vital because they not only tell Americans what the abuses actually constituted, but also show the depth of intended humiliations.

Given these sordid facts, few Americans would support a policy of torture. Even President Bush, whose administration produced a wealth of torture memos and reports in an effort to legitimize coercive interrogation, minimized the Abu Ghraib abuse by blaming a few wayward wrongdoers. The subtext, even from so evasive a president - one who has yet to acknowledge the gravity of a policy that assaults our Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and the righteous principles of democracy - is that Americans simply do not behave this way. They don't torture people.

American policy on torture is ambivalent at best, muddled at worst. Yet despite this ambivalence and frank disgust by many, including the president, over the Abu Ghraib pictures, a national debate on the issue of torture has not emerged.

Although the pundits have been hard at work bringing the issue into public discussion, and a proliferation of material can be found on the Internet and in print, a gnawing silence from those who wrote the policies and those who enacted them prevails. They have deftly left the debate to anyone other than themselves.

Somehow, covert methods became overt policy without debate or public explanation. Americans need an open and public debate on whether torture is a viable American policy. And we especially need to hear from those who wrote the administration's torture memos and reports.

At the heart of this debate needs to be the subject of coercive interrogation, because once we understand and define what legal coercive interrogation is, we can perhaps separate it from torture.

Many questions remain: Is rounding up and torturing hundreds of innocent victims worth it if we find one truly harmful enemy? Is torture ever a viable policy? Further, does it even work? Does just about anyone who is tortured have a breaking point? Will almost all tortured prisoners admit to any crime just to stop the pain? And what historical guidance do our former generals, lawmakers, presidents and others have to have to offer? Putting these questions to those former leaders might open a Pandora's box, but it would be well worth it.

Nevertheless, Americans need to at least begin to have clarity about these complex issues. What they don't need is more linguistic gymnastics from pundits and backpedaling and excuses from the president and his minions.

In his inaugural address, Mr. Bush said that spreading liberty around the world was "the calling of our time" - noble words that echo the spirit of American democracy.

Perhaps the president should help the nation move in this direction by leading the debate on torture. Such a debate would assure and educate Americans, garner a greater trust for the president and provide the basis for understanding his administration's policy decisions. Such a debate also would lead to overt rules and practices and a respect for accountability that would stand up to scrutiny - and make us all proud, once again, to be Americans.

Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law, is co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib.

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