“The United States does not torture,” stated the president in one of the recent speeches designed to invoke his 9/11-era popularity. But this statement is more an attempt to pander to the increasingly wishful self-image of Americans as a righteous people than a statement of fact. In an act of logical acrobatics surpassing Clinton’s famous, “I did not have sex with that woman,” at this very moment the administration is lobbying congress to pass a bill on military tribunals which allows the introduction of confessions produced under coercion. So, let me see if I get this right: the US does not torture but if it ever did, purely accidentally of course – an honest slip of the blackjack, fist, or boot – we ought not to let that tiny detail invalidate the evidence produced.
Are we to believe, then, that congressional action can wipe the moral stain from acts of torture obscured in bureaucratic euphemisms like “aggressive interrogation techniques,” “waterboarding,” and “stress positions”? Are we to believe that men who “confess” after being held under water to the point of drowning are indeed terrorists? Are you and I so very sure we would not “confess” under such conditions? (I am not so enamored of my own machismo as to think I would not). And are we Americans to believe that morality stops at our national borders – that acts of violence unacceptable against Americans are fine and dandy when carried out against foreigners who we think are involved in terrorism? The moral hair-splitting produced by this administration shows not its steely resolve in protecting Americans so much as its moral cowardice.
If the president were really the cowboy his handlers would like us to believe he is, he would dispense with fictional statements like, “The United States does not torture,” and state frankly and proudly that Yes, this country does torture. The fact that he bobs and weaves around words shows he is not the straight shooter of popular imagination but a slick sophist intent on preserving our fragile self-image even while allowing torture to take place. For let me ask you: if you were held for years without trial or evidence; pushed underwater until water began invading your lungs, let up, and pushed under again; stripped naked in winter in a cement cell; deprived of sleep for days on end – what would you call it? The president does not call it torture. He refers to such barbaric acts with a Victorian prudishness, with euphemisms, deathly afraid of offending delicate sensibilities. Straight shooter? I think not.
Torture does not work, and it is wrong, even when the nationality of the person brutalized is not the same as ours. But that man is a terrorist, you might say: he did not hesitate to do far worse to our people. To which I have two responses: one, without a legal process to determine guilt, perhaps he is not a terrorist, and two, if we as a nation are to set our moral standards against acts of terrorist barbarism, then are we not grading ourselves on a horrible curve? Are we not guilty of the worst kind of moral relativism? Are we not patting ourselves on the back merely for being a notch above Bin Laden? We should do right as a nation no matter what others do: only then do we have any claim to humanity or principled morality. Only then can we feel sure that the terrorists have not succeeded in baiting us to undermine our own system. Moral values are our most prized possession. Bush’s lily-livered legalism – that we do not torture (but we should always leave ourselves an out in case we really feel like it) – shrinks our stature as a people.