Torture, It’s Illegal, Immoral and it doesn’t work

Torture: It’s illegal, immoral, and it doesn’t work

The delusional “bomb scenario,” about whether one should or would torture an imaginary terrorist hostage in order to prevent a supposed bombing, has captured the imagination of too many Americans. And it makes for a preposterous proposal upon which to establish policy.

Our Constitution’s Fifth, Eighth and 14th amendments prohibit torture. Furthermore, Article VI, clause 2 (commonly known as the supremacy clause) states ” This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land, and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

This clearly means that any international treaties our Congress has ratified rise to the level of being constitutional law. The United States has ratified more than a half-dozen treaties and conventions that prohibit any sort of coercive interrogations or treatment of any detainees, here or abroad. Thus the recent debate about whether “water boarding” might be considered “torture” is simply a deviant, fatuous and illusory discussion. The case for torture, so-called “stress positions,” other forms of stressful coercion or mistreatment of any description is a statutorily closed issue of U.S. constitutional law. This law of our land is repeated again and again in our Constitution and ratified treaties, the laws of our federal government, 50 states and territories and every county and town in our nation. We are not allowed to torture or coerce our most evil gang leaders, murderers, child abusers or rapists in order to gain “actionable intelligence.” And we are legally held to the same standard for foreign prisoners of war, prisoners, detainees or people being held in our custody by whatever description. Furthermore we are not allowed to ship them off to other hell-hole nations where through the mechanism of “extraordinary rendition” they are to be treated inhumanely by our surrogates.

Resorting to torture or stressful coercion of prisoners only makes us out to be the biggest liars in history. We profess to be the most democratic and humane country in the world. But this current national “debate” and our recently exposed actions in Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries where we have resorted to illegal rendition of prisoners only tells the world that we are deceitful, dishonest, inhumane and immoral. In retribution, all Americans who might happen to be working or traveling abroad are in harm’s way. Other countries will surely take their lead from how we treat prisoners by doing likewise to our captured military or civilian operatives. Furthermore, even ordinary Americans on vacation in third world countries, who might conceivably be kidnapped or arrested for minor offenses, could expect inhumane treatment if their captors believe that’s what our government does.

There is one more irony I find in this topic. I had the unfortunate personal experience of being tortured numerous times as an eight-year prisoner of war in Vietnam. And my expert testimony is that torture only results in useless information, made-up stories, or whatever the victim thinks his or her torturer wants to hear. Torture simply doesn’t work. Many social studies have confirmed my experience, with what might be a counterintuitive conclusion for some — that what does work for getting truthful information is good and humane treatment of prisoners. Even on an amoral and utilitarian level, torture is generally useless for gaining “actionable” intelligence.

On a personal level, torture is a terrible thing to endure. It results in complete loss of control much like rape. It can temporarily and sometimes permanently destroy a person’s psyche and felt connection to society. It often leaves its victims with lifetime post traumatic stress. Studies have also shown that it not only leaves the tortured scarred for life, but also those who are assigned to do the torturing.

The act of engaging in such behavior is certainly immoral and inhumane, thus harkening back to less civilized epochs and less developed political systems. And the fact that we are even having this topic for national debate at the highest levels of our government is bringing us into question around the world. It’s doubly difficult for me to hear these discussions because we Vietnam POWs actually received moral strength from repeatedly telling each other that “our country would never treat POWs like this.” That moral high road helped sustain us through those dark and challenging times.

So this is becoming less a question about torture and humane treatment of individuals than it is a question of who we are as a nation. In essence, we are asking what kind of society are we really? Do we want to walk our talk? Or will we become like less civilized countries that have fallen into the abyss of institutionalized torture?

Monterey, 1/17/08

Published: 01/17/2008