Last Wednesday, Trevor Timm wrote a good piece for The Guardian, with a quote-worthy title: “Torture is a war crime the government treats like a policy debate”; a piece prompted by the Senate’s passage of a new amendment banning the use of torture by a vote of 78 for and 21 against (I’ll leave it to you to guess what all 21 “nay” votes have in common).
Timm is right. Much of the “torture debate” involved sophisticated discussions about the effectiveness of torture. Does it help us get the information we need? Does it protect us from future attacks?
The problem is that these are simply the wrong questions.
There are a lot of things that the US could do, right now, that would prevent future attacks; I would rather not weigh the disturbing options here.
But the following is accepted as a truism in other areas: The fact that something might “work” as a policy is not justification for implementing it. Take something like child labor. You want workers who you can exploit for little to no pay? Hire children who are forced to work to feed their starving families. That would work, right?
Anyone who suggests the above is, rightly, seen as a moral monster.
However, with torture, these people are “terrorists” — even though many of the individuals held in Guantanamo and other torture sites have never been convicted or even accused of a crime — so “laws” and “moral principles” don’t apply. As Dick Cheney would say, the gloves are off.
But torture is wrong, period. Morally reprehensible, and even if it were “effective,” (which it doesn’t seem to be) I, along with countless others, would oppose it. And it’s quite important that the man who has been tortured, John McCain, who is typically an extreme warhawk, is a leader in the fight against it.
Although it may be a sign of shifting consciousness on this important issue, I’m pessimistic about the potential effectiveness of the amendment approved by the Senate. As Timm points out, there are already plenty of laws in place to prevent the use of torture — if they’re followed — so I don’t see how adding yet another law into the mix, one which “reaffirms” the prohibition on torture, is going to solve the problem.
The real issue here is that the US government is rogue and lawless.
President Bush and his cronies found a way around the laws already in place, and there is no reason to believe that future presidents won’t do the same, regardless of public or political opposition. In fact, even though President Obama has passed an executive order prohibiting torture, there’s not sufficient reason to believe that torture techniques aren’t still being implemented at this moment.
There is simply no drive from officials to enforce the law, as no one who violates the law is held accountable.
US political elites like to trot out the dogma of American exceptionalism, but they don’t want their actions to live up to these rhetorical standards. They pressure other countries to obey international law, yet they violate it at the first opportunity. Until the US government decides that they can no longer be rogue and lawless, there is no reason to believe that the passage of an amendment will put an end to their heinous crimes.
I think that Conor Friedersdorf was right when he called this vote a “moral test”. The 21 who voted against this measure failed; and one of these individuals, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, is running for president.
Only time will tell if the US government will live up to its rhetorical standards. It rarely does.