Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

When Barack Obama, a constitutional lawyer, took office as President of the United States, his supporters expected that he would act aggressively to reverse his predecessor’s disrespect for civil liberties.  Astonishingly, he’s turned out to be no enemy of the massively intrusive national security state.  What’s worse, it now seems, he’s being leaned on to endorse some of the worst human rights abuses of the George W. Bush regime.  He’s in danger of buying the argument that there’s no legal bar to the use of torture outside the borders of the U.S. by U.S. agents.

This would be a very serious mistake, and here are six reasons why:

1.  The intentional inflicting (or causing to be inflicted) of extreme physical or mental pain is always morally and ethically unacceptable.  Torture is bestial and uncivilized.  Conventions already ratified by the U.S. forbid it.    

2.  If the U.S. wishes to exert or reclaim the least shred of leadership in the struggle for universal human rights, once a U.S. public diplomacy basic, Americans cannot be permitted to  engage in torture or condone its use in pursuit of American goals or purposes.  Ignorance of allies’ or confederates’ methods is not a defense.  Soft power matters in the larger pursuit of national interests.

3.  If torture is illegal on U.S. territory, it is illogical and indefensible to create black holes for torture outside the United States.  To try to persuade ourselves otherwise is pure hypocrisy.

4.  Since evidence obtained through torture is impermissible in U.S. courts, the prosecution of cases resting on torture requires judicial contortions that are desperately unconstitutional.  The term “kangaroo courts”  is not inapt.   Where evidence is suppressed and secrecy prevails there is no way to guarantee  defendants a fair trial, a clear denial of justice in a supposedly democratic system.      

4.  Inevitably, with a dual justice system, there will be domestic blowback from overseas black sites and their morally compromised judicial processes.   Already over-militarization of local police systems has resulted in violent over-reaction to crime at the local level.  Unnecessary death and destruction have occurred.  In the same way, our imperfect  judicial system will be further tainted by the moral compromises and legal short cuts required by a parallel black system.  In fact, there is already too much brutality in the American penal system, and prosecutors in too many juristictions are all too happy to suppress or distort evidence to gain convictions.  Even today it is far from impossible for innocent persons to be convicted of capital crimes.  Such aberrations would increase as cynicism and lack of due process migrated from torture-tainted trials to normal legal procedures.  

And now for the pragmatic reasons:

5.  Information extracted under torture is seldom reliable, because people in pain will say anything to stop the agony.

6.  According to interrogation experts,  humane questioning is actually quite effective.   So torture isn’t necessary.  It’s sadistic self-indulgence.

In 1995 the U.S. ratified the global Convention against Torture which the U.N. had adopted in 1984.  Next month the U.S. has an opportunity to appear in Geneva and reaffirm before the entire world the executive order that Obama himself signed shortly after assuming office: the U.S. does not (and will not) practice or allow the torture or cruel treatment of prisoners at home or anywhere else in the world.  

Evidently some Bush administration officials and some members of the military fear that such a bald statement of humane principle would endanger the Americans who committed grave violations of human rights during the George W. Bush administration.  They might be hauled up before an international court.  They might be charged with war crimes.  I myself would be happy to see that happen, if only to ensure that Americans never do it again, but I’m pretty certain that the fear is overblown.   After all, the U.K. has also been forced to admit that some of its operatives have dirty hands.  The recent past is too messy to be raked up.

However, the principle and practise for the future should be clear beyond all legal fudging, and the U.S. must be on the right side: there is no legitimate room in this world for torture or brutality, no matter where it’s carried out, no matter who does it, no matter the apparently extenuating circumstances.   And if moral principle isn’t good enough for some Americans, they might consider the ways in which our justice system  will rot from within should we allow our leaders to indulge in torture under any euphemism.