Last week a remarkable truth emerged - we need to have a torture debate. On Friday the President admitted that we are now a state sponsor of torture and an amazing thing happened: Nothing. TV news coverage was dominated by the Democratic primary, and if news outlets acknowledged it at all it was in a summary or somewhere in the back pages. I am on record with my deep revulsion for torture, but a critical mass of our upper political and media levels does not consider it worthy of sustained focus. Maybe if we change the terms of the debate we can make it more visible.
I understand some possible objections: Engaging it at all dignifies the pro-torture position, and doing so in a talk show back-and-forth format trivializes it. On the other hand, we do not have much to show for our current approach. Maybe we would have more if we discussed torture warrants, as Alan Dershowitz proposed shortly after 9/11. What if judges could legally authorize torture? It would create a formal paper trail and regulate the process. Applicants would probably be very reluctant to come forward and judges equally reluctant to grant them (I assume most people would not want their names attached to it). Further, it puts accountability into the system. No one wanted to contemplate such a gruesome bureaucracy at the time but now maybe we should. What we have right now is the worst of all possible worlds - we torture, the President denies it, everyone knows it is happening but no one wants to know the details. Torture warrants would document them. Maybe we could also address the following: Those in favor of torture refer to only using it for ticking time bomb scenarios. But we already have tortured, and where were the ticking time bombs? You may rest assured such an event would have been extremely well publicized.
I believe the fundamental motivation behind systemic torture is not defending us against a threat to our nation’s very existence but the macabre fantasies and fevered dreams of evil men. Human nature dictates that vast new powers with no oversight get abused, but even if we somehow reformed that part of our nature it would not prevent sadistic leaders from creating unconscionable horrors when presented with a frightened populace in a time of uncertainty. Proponents must either postulate such results as part of their position or admit they would prefer not to seriously address torture. Maybe then they would go to the sidelines with their intellectual cousin Alberto Gonzales, whom Rosa Brooks memorably described as “the handmaiden of torture”. The apologists have been allowed to tread lightly for too long. Maybe torture warrants would force them to either engage for real or give up.
We could also mention some of the unintended consequences. At the moment it looks like the President will go to the Olympics’ opening ceremony despite calls for him to boycott it to protest the occupation of Tibet. Given his native affection for strongmen he likely doesn’t see any problem, except maybe that the abuses have been so obvious they have attracted a great deal of attention (i.e. the problem lies not in the concept but in the execution). But imagine for a moment that he was deeply troubled by it. Before his first statement of concern had finished translating the leaders in China would rightly ask how we can criticize them in light of our own human rights abuses. We simply have no moral credibility in that area any more.
Or consider the theocrats who rule Iran. It is especially galling to see their news agencies crowing over how lousy we are on the issue. If Iraq is any guide we can soon expect the cheerleaders for an Iran war to conflate opposing armed conflict with support of their rulers. Allow me to beat them to the putsch: It is possible to both be extremely critical of them and not want war with them. And some of us find it shameful to see them looking down on us for our wretched treatment of some of those in our care.
If we could get the pro-torture side to engage any of this we could begin having a real debate and public awareness would be raised. At the moment those of us who believe a civilized nation does not torture under any circumstances are largely talking amongst ourselves. We have failed to get our message across to a wider audience. Waiting for its self-evident hideousness to drive the discussion doesn’t appear to be working. Approaching it from some slightly different angles might change that, and it is something we should at least consider.