depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect."
intelligence official with direct knowledge of the torture of
al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah, illustrating how torture traumatizes
both victim and
perpetrator. Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under
less severe treatment, and the harsher handling
produced no breakthroughs.
Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors. "He
pleaded for his life," the official said.
"But he gave up no
new information. He had no more information to give."
New York Times
“May we do evil to
achieve good ?”
Richard A. McCormick, S.J.
≠ ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠
"If you ever
work with the Americans, remember this. They have two human rights policies.
One they apply inside the United States.
The other they apply everywhere else in the
President Corizon Aquino,
July 19, 2004
Vol. 192 No. 3
Editorial: Never Again
For years the
hypothetical case of the “ticking time-bomb” has served as a test for
moralists probing the limits of absolute prohibitions: Are authorities
permitted, by way of exception, to torture a captive who probably has
information about a hidden time-bomb that could kill large numbers of
people? As the late moral theologian Richard A. McCormick, S.J., asked,
“May we do evil to achieve good?” The horrors of Sept. 11, 2001,
disposed many in the United States to answer yes. The experience of mass
terror within our borders turned an academic exercise into a real-life
problem. The answer seemed obvious.
From ignoring the legal rights of detainees to the strategy of
preventive war, people in and out of government were willing, in the
interest of national security, to make exceptions to long-held
prohibitions, to exempt the United States from international conventions
and to exploit legal loopholes as they searched for information about
potential terrorist attacks. In the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the
appalling results of this moral exceptionalism have become plain for all
Abu Ghraib, however, is only the visible edge of a Boschian landscape
of violation of the rights of innocents, prisoners of war and so-called
enemy combatants. Since the scandal broke, military and press reports
have identified numerous clusters of offenses from Afghanistan to
Guantánamo, including other sites in Iraq and a gulag of secret C.I.A.
prisons around the world. The torture, abuse and death under
interrogation—39 cases of possible homicide are currently under
investigation—are too widespread and systematic to be explained as the
deeds of a few misguided enlistees and noncommissioned officers. They
were part of a strategy of counterterrorism aimed at an elusive enemy in
an allegedly new type of conflict.
The notion that the war against terror is radically different from
any previous conflict was an ideological precondition to torture and
abuse. The belief that new methods were needed to wage this new war and
that customary limits on government and military operations might be
lifted opened the way to moral confusion and ultimately, as Abu Ghraib
has revealed, to depravity. Social psychologists who study wartime
atrocities term such ideas “sanctions for evil.” The military personnel
alleged to have engaged in torture, sadistic abuse and even homicide did
not act in a vacuum, but in a climate that condoned harsh treatment of
prisoners and suspects as legitimate behavior. However lax their
training or their superiors’ enforcement of rules of conduct, the
offenders shared a frame of mind with the makers of policy in
The administration generated a mind-set that traditional limits could
be ignored to gather “intelligence” about terrorism and guerrilla
operations. White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez defended the inherent
right of the president, as a wartime commander-in-chief, to define enemy
combatants and the condition of their detention. The Justice
Department’s Office of Legal Counsel weighed the possibilities for
interrogation methods that inflict near-lethal pain. Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a variety of judgments about the
inapplicability or limited relevance of the Geneva Conventions. The
C.I.A. established secret prisons and “renditions” (transfer of
prisoners) to still less scrupulous foreign interrogators. As one
decorated former military intelligence officer commented, attitudes
toward treatment of the enemy “flow like a river—from top to bottom.”
Abu Ghraib demonstrates how mistaken it is to presume to make an
exception out of fear of “a ticking time-bomb.” There is never just one
exception. There is a slew of them, and under the pressures of war they
cascade through the military, police and intelligence agencies,
overwhelming any vestige of restraint. If respect for human dignity were
not itself sufficient reason for resisting the temptation to torture and
degrade possible enemies, then concern about the moral collapse brought
about by exceptionalism provides a powerful reason for honoring
standards of human rights protection. Making exceptions profanes the
respect for the person on which American liberty rests, and it vitiates
the moral integrity of those who serve our nation.
Torture and degrading treatment not only are wrong; they also
don’t work. Veteran U.S. and Israeli intelligence agents have testified
to the poor quality of intelligence extracted under torture. In a war on
terror, moreover, the mistreatment of innocents and insurgent
sympathizers swept up in mass arrests is very likely in the long run to
lead to further resistance and increased terrorism.
Let us repent our sins and learn from them. Argentinians, after the
“Dirty War” of the 1970’s, entitled the report of their truth and
reconciliation commission Nunca Mas, “Never Again.” After Abu
Ghraib, the United States, its government and military, indeed our whole
people, must say “never again” to torture, degrading treatment,
indefinite detention and the other excesses rationalized by the war on
January 31, 2005
Vol. 192 No. 3
Editorial: From Terror to Torture
The scandal of torture
and abuse symbolized by Abu Ghraib took a turn for the better at the end
of last year with news of a Justice Department draft memorandum
reaffirming the responsibilities of the United States under the Geneva
Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. After a succession of
revelations of further atrocities, particularly in Guantánamo, and of
court rulings critical of the lack of legal protections afforded
terrorist suspects, some in the Bush administration have seen the wisdom
of acknowledging its legal obligations toward detainees in the war on
terror and toward prisoners of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S.
military has long recognized that if we throw out the Geneva
Conventions, it will be difficult to criticize our enemies when they
ignore these conventions in dealing with our own soldiers.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin ought to be commended
for leading the United States back to the moral high ground abandoned by
Mr. Bush’s former attorney general, John Ashcroft, and the White House
legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, when they ruled that in the war on
terror the United States is not bound by the Geneva Conventions. The
administration needs to be watched closely to see whether Mr. Levin’s
memorandum becomes lasting government policy. Many analysts believe that
the Levin memo, released just before Mr. Gonzales’ confirmation hearing,
was a ploy to clear the way for the Senate to approve his appointment as
the nation’s next attorney general.
This memo should not be allowed to paper over an unprecedented
national disgrace. From holding detainees incommunicado to torturing
them for the purpose of gaining intelligence, the administration has
taken a series of initiatives that violate fundamental freedoms, basic
rights and essential human decencies. As the Abu Ghraib scandal
demonstrated, it is a short step from “loosening up” detainees for
interrogation to depraved treatment by poorly supervised troops. The
core scandal, however, continues to be the authorization of such methods
by high-level administration officials, chief among them Mr. Gonzales.
After a number of flawed investigations, new abuses and
authorizations for them continue to be disclosed. The C.I.A. still
refuses to make any disclosures about treatment of its captives and its
chain of secret prisons outside the United States. F.B.I. interrogators
have complained to their superiors about illicit measures employed by
the military on detainees in Guantánamo; and there is only the vaguest
public knowledge of “renditions” of captives to other countries, where
they are expected to be interrogated more vigorously than even the
administration’s permissive standards would have allowed.
The most obvious way to insure that the illegal and immoral practices
perpetrated in the name of U.S. security are ended would have been for
the Senate to hold extensive hearings on the topic prior to any vote on
Mr. Gonzalez’ confirmation as attorney general. He was a principal
architect of the policies that attempted, in the name of freedom from
terror, to exempt U.S. military and security personnel from
responsibility to uphold fundamental human rights of both Americans and
people of other nationalities. Mr. Gonzales also attributed to the
president war-time powers so sweeping they are reminiscent of the way
the Roman Republic made consuls into dictators in time of national
The war on terror has opened a wide breach in the ramparts of
immunities that protect people from the strong arm of the state. The
shock of Sept. 11 was so great that the country turned a blind eye as
thousands of immigrants and Arab- and Muslim-Americans were swept up in
mass arrests, Afghan fighters were declared detainees without the
protections of the Geneva Conventions, and uncounted Iraqis were roused
from their sleep to be imprisoned in hellholes like Abu Ghraib. Experts
argued that the excessive measures approved by the government would not
result in improved intelligence, but the administration plunged ahead.
Still, the political elites, including the opposition Democrats, refuse
to hold the president’s men accountable. It is left to the courts and
nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, the
International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch to be
defenders of human dignity.
It is ironic that as the administration works to extend democracy to
the Middle East, it has swept aside the very protections against
government abuse of power that are most essential to our system of
democratic government. If we do not hold the president’s appointees
accountable, how will we preserve our freedoms for future generations?
How will we restore our national honor before the world?