Earlier this month, the U.S. government announced that it would seek the death penalty sentencing for six men held at Guantanamo Bay, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. This decision, as well as the process leading up to it, has struck controversy for a number of reasons.
First, the accused men were imprisoned for over five years before finally being charged. Second, the death penalty, which most U.S. allies condemn, is the sentence being sought by military prosecutors. Third, the trials will take place in the military commissions system which denies basic rights such as habeas corpus to the accused. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, evidence obtained through “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding — which the rest of the world says unequivocally is torture — could possibly be admitted at trial.
For those who believe in the merits of torture, this case seems ideal for defending their position. If ever the need for vital information justified torture, it was when trying to extract information from those who plotted one of the most horrific attacks on American soil. But by no means have these arguments convinced everyone. Opponents of torture reject the administration’s position on a number of grounds — namely, torture produces unreliable evidence; a conviction based on coerced evidence lacks legitimacy; the use and implicit endorsement of torture by the U.S. government puts U.S. troops in danger of being tortured; cases of prisoners in U.S. custody being tortured incites extremism; and, most simply, the U.S. should be above torture, a barbaric and inhumane practice.
The arguments, far from being novel, are part of a familiar debate, which has played itself out over and over again since the fiasco surrounding Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and CIA secret prisons first began.
As one watches this debate unfold yet again, it is hard not to feel discouraged. It is not that opponents of torture are apathetic in their defense of human rights or that their arguments are unconvincing. (Quite to the contrary, the response pressuring the administration to provide greater protections to the accused has been impressive, especially given their involvement in the 9/11 attacks.) What is discouraging is that we still must make these arguments.
Since we are having a debate on torture, it is clear that some people still doubt the idea that torture lacks justification in all circumstances. Which raises the question: How exactly does one put such doubts to rest? Torture is wrong. It is inhumane. What else is there to say?
A century and a half ago, Frederick Douglass posed a similar question when fighting against slavery, that most peculiar of institutions. “Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery?” he asked. “Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom, speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively? To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
With time, history came to validate Douglass’ judgment of slavery. Once the injustice of slavery became evident, the institution lost any hope of justification, as well as its central place in public debate.
To compare opposition to torture with the abolitionist movement implies that history will validate the former just as it did the latter. Perhaps such a belief is too presumptuous. But then again, when one sees the images that came out of Abu Ghraib, it is difficult to imagine history ever looking favorably upon our policy of torture. As long as moral contradictions exert some force on individuals, one can take hope in knowing that, like slavery, torture eventually will lose its grounds for justification. At present, when the nation’s consciousness has yet to arrive at this realization, we can follow the abolitionist movement’s example, working to make sure that torture is seen for what it is — a foolish and unnecessary practice — sooner rather than later.
To take a first step to opposing the U.S. system of illegal detention and torture, please sign Amnesty’s petition at tearitdown.org.
Ben Jones is political science graduate student. He is a member of the Amnesty International club at Yale.