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Torture Is Torture

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I wish I could turn to cheerier matters, but I just can't get past this torture issue -- the fact that George W. Bush, the president of the United States of America, persists in demanding that Congress give him the right to torture anyone he considers a "high-value" terrorist suspect. The president of the United States. Interrogation by torture. This just can't be happening.

It's past time to stop mincing words. The Decider, or maybe we should now call him the Inquisitor, sticks to anodyne euphemisms. He speaks of "alternative" questioning techniques, and his umbrella term for the whole shop of horrors is "the program." Of course, he won't fully detail the methods that were used in the secret CIA prisons -- and who knows where else? -- but various sources have said they have included not just the infamous "waterboarding," which the administration apparently will reluctantly forswear, but also sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, bombardment with ear-splitting noise and other assaults that cause not just mental duress but physical agony. That is torture, and to call it anything else is a lie.

It is not possible for our elected representatives to hold any sort of honorable "debate" over torture. Bush says he is waging a "struggle for civilization," but civilized nations do not debate slavery or genocide, and they don't debate torture, either. This spectacle insults and dishonors every American.

There is one ray of encouragement: the crystal-clear evidence that the men and women of our armed forces want no part of torturing anybody. The members of the Republican resistance -- Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- have impeccable Pentagon connections and are not operating in a vacuum. Bush admitted in his news conference Friday that he had spoken to "the professionals" and that they would not carry out "the program" unless Congress specifically told them to.

In support of its torture bill, all the White House could manage to squeeze out of five top Pentagon lawyers was a four-sentence letter of non-objection that had all the enthusiasm of a hostage tape.

Colin Powell's strongly worded rejection of torture should have embarrassed and chastened the White House, but this is a president who refuses to listen to critics of his "war on terrorism" -- even critics who helped design and lead it.

There should be no need to spell out the practical reasons against torture, but, for the record, they are legion. As Powell and others have argued, if the United States unilaterally reinterprets Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions to permit torture, potential adversaries in future conflicts will feel justified in doing the same thing. Does the president want some captured pilot to be subjected to the tortures applied in the CIA prisons?

And, as has been pointed out by experts, torture works -- far too well. Torture victims will tell what they know, and when their knowledge is exhausted they will tell their torturers what they want to hear, even if they have to invent conspiracies. The president says that torturing al-Qaeda kingpins foiled serious plots against America, but how do we know those plots were real? How can we be sure that some of the detainees at Guantanamo aren't shopkeepers or taxi drivers who were snatched because Khalid Sheik Mohammed ran out of real terrorists to implicate and began naming acquaintances so he wouldn't get waterboarded again?

But we shouldn't have to talk about the practicalities of torture, because the real question is moral: What kind of nation are we? What kind of people are we?

Bush's view of the world is based on the idea of American exceptionalism: that this country is unique, that its ideas and values are not just worthy or admirable but superior to any others. This attitude annoys the rest of the world to no end -- a lot of other countries think they're pretty special, too -- but accept for the moment that the American system is in fact the best of all systems and that the great experiment begun by the Founding Fathers was a signal event in the history of mankind. Accept, if you will, Bush's view that the United States is steadfastly blessed by a loving God.

What do you imagine God might think about torture, Mr. President?


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