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In Torture We Trust? | The Nation

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In Torture We Trust?

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A deeper problem is that, all too often, even the absolutist position goes unenforced. No government on earth admits to practicing torture, yet each year Amnesty International documents countless states that do. The disparity stems from the fact that torture nearly always takes place in private settings, and in societies loath to discuss the subject openly. In a forthcoming article, Sanford Levinson, a professor at the University of Texas Law School and a noted legal realist, argues that this gap between rhetoric and reality may bolster Dershowitz's proposal that torture should be brought out into the open and regulated.

This article was originally published in the March 31, 2003 issue of The Nation. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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As William Schulz has argued persuasively in these pages [see "The Torturer's Apprentice," May 13, 2002], there are many reasons why, far from limiting torture, such a policy would end up making the practice more ubiquitous than ever. Any country in the world, Schulz points out, would henceforth be able to issue similar warrants and torture at will, free of criticism from the nation that pioneered the practice.

Levinson is right that it won't do simply to pretend that torture is not being perpetrated, as CNBC news anchor Brian Williams did the day after Mohammed's capture, saying to his guest, "Now, the United States says it does not engage in torture, and certainly for the purposes of this conversation and beyond we will take the government at its word." What's needed instead are scholars, reporters, politicians and citizens who are willing both to hold democracies such as the United States to their stated ideals, and to ask hard questions about what, in a democratic society, should constitute permissible methods of interrogation during wartime. If violence and the threat of violence are out, should prolonged interrogations be permitted? (The Supreme Court has ruled that any confession obtained after thirty-six hours of questioning is by definition coerced.) Should captives have access to lawyers? Should solitary confinement be allowed? This entire area of the law, says David Cole, remains nebulous, perhaps because it is an unpleasant topic to discuss.

Accompanying this discussion should be an equally frank dialogue about the safeguards we need to insure that rampant violations don't occur. For torture, like all governmental abuses, thrives in the absence of openness and accountability. In January the International Secretariat of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from more than sixty-five different countries, issued a press release urging Washington to allow the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the Bagram base in Afghanistan, where the practices the Washington Post described are taking place. The OMCT's recommendation was met with stony silence, not only in Washington but by the US media.

The chilled atmosphere is reminiscent of the cold war, when discussion of US support for regimes that engaged in torture (Pinochet's Chile, Suharto's Indonesia) was likewise swept beneath the rug of national security. A language of euphemism and evasion emerged that became so ingrained as to go unnoticed. On February 6, in a disturbing sign that the pattern is being repeated, the New York Times published a front-page story detailing the intelligence breakthrough that led US officials to connect the recent murder of a diplomat to an Al Qaeda cell in Baghdad. "Critical information about the network emerged from interrogations of captured cell members conducted under unspecified circumstances of psychological pressure [emphasis added]," the Times reported, a phrase you would expect to find in the training manual of a South American police state, not the world's leading newspaper. In the days following Mohammed's arrest, the US media uncritically accepted the Bush Administration's vow not to violate the UN Convention Against Torture, while casually mentioning (sometimes in the same article) that America could persuade Mohammed to talk by reminding him that it has access to his two young children. (Any threat to physically harm a captive's children would constitute torture.) London's Economist, by contrast, has questioned whether the United States is "quietly sanctioning the use of some forms of torture" and called on Bush to stop "handing prisoners over to less scrupulous allies."

In early March, the same week that news broke of the cause of the captives' deaths in Afghanistan, the Post reported that some nineteen detainees have attempted suicide at the US Navy Prison at Guantánamo Bay, which Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says "begs the question of the long-term psychological effects of the techniques that are being employed there." For Americans to accept their government's assurances in light of these and other recent disclosures is deeply disquieting. For, as historian Peters has noted, the source of torture throughout history has always been the same: not the depraved prison guard who relishes inflicting pain but the society that agrees to tolerate, or even encourage, his actions. "It is still civil society," Peters writes, "that tortures or authorizes torture or is indifferent to those wielding it on civil society's behalf."

America's unique stature encumbers it with a special responsibility in this regard. "For better or worse, the United States sets precedents and examples," Henry Shue says. "We're very visible. If the most powerful country in the world has to torture, how are we supposed to convince anyone else that they shouldn't torture?" In Iran, a group of reformists in Parliament recently submitted a bill calling on their country to sign the UN Convention Against Torture. One can only hope that Teheran's hard-line clerics haven't been reading the Washington Post.

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