Where's the Outrage? Is Torture Just Another Tool of Government?

Where's the Outrage? Is Torture Just Another Tool of Government?

Stephen H. Unger
March 7, 2011

It is hard to think of anything more un-American than torture, which conflicts with the basic idea that Americans respect the rights and dignity of others. This goes back to the Revolutionary War, when George Washington, on several occasions, made it clear that he would not tolerate abuse of enemy soldiers captured by his army. He was adamant on this point, despite the fact that most Americans captured by the British did not survive the cruel, brutal treatment inflicted on them.

Principled Behavior Under Difficult Circumstances

Washington was not merely mouthing some abstract principle. An early occasion on which he expressed his view on this subject was immediately after the important American victory at Trenton. He ordered his soldiers to, "Treat them [over a thousand captured Hessian mercenaries] with humanity, and let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren. Provide everything necessary for them on the road." [Kennedy].

Washington was by no means alone in this regard. John Adams, for example, expressed similar views. In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a list of strict rules prohibiting torture or other mistreatment of prisoners of war. Note that both Washington and Lincoln were holding their moral positions at times of utmost national peril and stress.

The American Revolution was a difficult struggle against a world super-power. The Colonists were not united; many sided with the British. The outcome was in doubt almost to the end. Some eight decades later, the Civil War pitted many family members against one another, and, in the early phases, the secessionists were on the brink of victory. It would be hard to imagine a situation more threatening to the continued existence of the nation.

Yet, in both wars, the nation's leaders firmly rejected the use of inhumane measures in dealing with prisoners. There was no debate about whether it would be acceptable to torture a soldier in gray to learn when and where Stonewall Jackson planned next to cross the Potomac: information that might save the lives of thousands of Federal troops.

This is not to imply that the US has an unblemished record with respect to treatment of war prisoners [Luce], or people in prisons or prison camps. Unfortunately there have been many abuses, particularly with respect to the treatment of various minority groups [Unger]. But such abuse has always been regarded as shameful. I don't know of any public officials, or member of congress who openly advocated or defended the deliberate use of torture prior to the late twentieth century.

The Ticking Bomb

It is easy to invent hypothetical circumstances under which a benefit might be derived that would arguably justify torture. A popular scenario of this type is the "ticking bomb". A terrorist X is captured who knows exactly where the triggering mechanism is for a potentially devastating time bomb that could kill thousands of innocent people. Surely it would be justifiable to inflict pain on X to extract the life-saving information. Well, maybe not so surely.

We have not seen real examples of such cases, and for good reason. In the hazy universe of clandestine warfare, how could we be reasonably certain that X has this kind of information? For how long after the capture of X would the information be useful? What kinds of safeguards could be devised and enforced to ensure that torture was strictly restricted to "justifiable" cases? Bear in mind the absence of checks and balances in the realm of intelligence operations. Even in our ordinary criminal justice system, with a rich structure of legal safeguards of all types, roughly one of ten people convicted of a serious crime is innocent [Roots]. It is inevitable that any system permitting torture will be grossly abused.

Apart from purely moral considerations, many high ranking US military officers and lawyers serving the armed forces strongly oppose the use of torture. On the one hand, military intelligence officers argue that torture seldom, if ever. produces reliable information. Subjects of torture will say anything to stop the pain. Many WWII American interrogators of Nazi prisoners claimed great success without the use of inhumane methods [Dvorak]. A very different argument is that the use of torture by Americans exposes captured US soldiers to similar treatment [Krulak][Grim], and produces the kind of anti-American feeling that is invaluable for recruiting terrorists.

Today's America

The US is now the world's sole superpower, engaged with an enemy comprised of some vaguely defined collection of people from third-world countries. Over the past decade of this "epic" struggle, after 9/11, the worst domestic threat was from a car bomb containing firecrackers, 3 picnic-size propane tanks, two 5-gallon cans of gasoline, and two clocks. Parked in Times Square with its hazard lights on, it fizzled, but failed to detonate [Baker]. Faced with enemies of this caliber, the nation's political leaders act as tho respecting the Bill of Rights and our nation's humanitarian traditions, which are incompatible with the use of torture in any form, for any purpose, would imperil the very existence of the "Home of the Brave". High-level judges, ranking political figures of both major parties, law professors, and political pundits labor to define precisely what constitutes torture and the conditions under which it would be acceptable for the US government to torture people.

In many important ways, the world is more civilized and less brutal than it was several centuries ago, before most western countries abolished sadistic punishment of criminals (such as whipping, branding, and boiling). So it is dismaying to see the resurgence of savage behavior represented by the torture carried out by the US government. The extent of the moral deterioration taking place in our country is clearly illustrated by the following statement made about those objecting to the use of torture by the US government:

I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment [...] [They] are not there for traffic violations. [...] If they're in cell block 1A or 1B, these prisoners—they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. [...] Many of them probably have American blood on their hands. And here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals.

These are the words of James Inhofe, senior senator from Oklahoma, uttered at a formal hearing on the Abu Ghraib atrocities [CNN]. Even if he had been been referring to the treatment of convicted murderers or rapists, his statement would have constituted a disgraceful violation of the oath of office he took on assuming his seat, in which he swore to "support and defend the Constitution". The Eighth Amendment of that constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment". It obviously applies to those properly found guilty of even the most heinous crimes.

But the senator's malfeasance goes much further. None of the people he is attacking have been convicted of any crimes. Few, if any, inmates of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, etc. are people caught in the commission of atrocious acts. A few are accused of plotting terrorist attacks. Many were imprisoned because their names were provided by others, who may have been personal enemies, or who did so to earn a bounty, or as a result of being tortured. Some are there as a result of mistaken identity. Others were captured while simply fighting against foreigners who had invaded their country. Torture is not being used to stop the detonation of ticking bombs. Rather it is used to elicit confessions, often from innocent people, to get prisoners to name others as terrorists, to intimidate political opponents of the government, and to punish prisoners deemed to be misbehaving. How could any decent person not be outraged by the deliberate torture of people under these circumstances?

We have only fragmentary information as to the detailed methods used by American torturers, or in the countries serving as destinations for extraordinary renditions. Published pictures, taken informally by US personnel, represent only a glimpse into that ugly world [Green]. Credible sources indicate that at least dozens of prisoners have been killed while being tortured, and a number have committed suicide [Greenwald-1].

Muffled Protest

When it first became known, while the Republicans were in the White House, that the US government was torturing Iraqis there were numerous outcries by Democratic politicians and supporters. The Bush Administration stood firm, and subsequently both Bush and Cheney openly accepted responsibility for what was done, arguing that it was fully justified as a means for preventing terrorist attacks [Greenwald-2].

Senator Obama expressed strong opposition to the way the administration was illegally imprisoning, and abusing people. President Obama also professed to be against torture and illegal imprisonment, but his words were not backed up by action [Savage]. The bottom line is that people continue to be imprisoned illegally, and he explicitly rejected the idea of investigating and, where appropriate, prosecuting those members of the previous administration responsible for these terrible acts. He said, "we should look forward, not backward". Glenn Greenwald elegantly paraphrased the underlying philosophy as, "government crimes should be disclosed, investigated and punished only when they occur during a time other than the Past." [Greenwald-3].

Considering the atrocious nature of the system whereby people are arbitrarily seized and imprisoned, without due process, in a variety of special facilities, some whose very existence is kept secret, and where they are subject to all sorts of terrible abuse, it is disappointing that there is so little in the way of protest by the American people. In particular, one would have expected outrage from those generally characterized as "liberals". They did, indeed, protest when the above mentioned atrocities were being committed by the Bush Administration.

Now, they are in the painful position of having either to remain silent about the ongoing abuses, or to mount a protest campaign against the administration that they were instrumental in electing to office. It appears that, despite this and a number of other ways in which the administration has disappointed them (e.g., banker-oriented economic policies, and continuation of the wars) most liberals see no alternative to supporting the Democratic Party unconditionally. There are, of course, exceptions. Some individual politicians and commentators have consistently spoken out against torture (e.g., Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, Glen Greenwald), and the ACLU has been battling hard in the courts.

So, as a consequence of the "looking forward—not backward" policy, all the methods used are now established as permissible practices by the current or any future administration. For example, the administration has explicitly left open the option of extraordinary rendition [Johnston]. Due to the veil of secrecy that enshrouds these operations, we do not know the extent to which torture by the CIA and possibly by other government agencies—or even by private contractors—is going on right now [McQ]. The Obama Administration has vigorously argued in court that allowing detainees to contest their imprisonment or treatment in legal proceedings would constitute an unacceptable threat to "national security" [ACLU].

The "looking forward—not backward" policy has not deterred the administration from going to unprecedented lengths to identify and punish government employees who leak embarrassing information [Shane][Greenwald-4]. Along these lines, perhaps the most dramatic is the abusive, to a point including elements of torture, imprisonment for over ten months of Bradley Manning, who, along the lines of Daniel Ellsberg's exposure of the Pentagon Papers, leaked a great quantity of material embarrassing to the government [Greenwald-5].

We appear to be on a path whereby prison guards, police officers, military personnel, CIA agents, and the like may soon routinely regard torture as an option for attaining their immediate objectives. How tragic that, what was once regarded as a characteristically odious feature of Nazi, Fascist, and Communist regimes, will be shared by the nation that George Washington was instrumental in founding.


ACLU, "Obama Admin Seeks To Deny Bagram Prisoners Access To U.S. Courts", ACLU, September 15, 2009

Al Baker, William K. Rashbaum, "Police Find Car Bomb in Times Square", The New York Times, May 1, 2010

CNN, "GOP senator labels abused prisoners 'terrorists'", CNN Politics, May 12, 2004

Petula Dvorak, "Fort Hunt's Quiet Men Break Silence on WWII Interrogators Fought 'Battle of Wits'", The Washington Post, October 6, 2007

Roedy Green, "Abu Ghraib POW torture Pictures", Canadian Mind Products

Glenn Greenwald-1, "The suppressed fact: Deaths by U.S. torture", Salon.com, June 30, 2009

Glenn Greenwald-2, "Rule-of-law extremism engulfs primitive Eastern Europe", Salon.com, Nov 21, 2009

Glenn Greenwald-3, "The vindication of Dick Cheney", Salon.com, Jan 18, 2011

Glenn Greenwald-4, "The DOJ's creeping war on whistle-blowers", Salon.com, Feb 25, 2011

Glenn Greenwald-5, "The serial deceit of Geoff Morrell", Salon.com, Mar 4, 2011

Ryan Grim, "Bush Administration Ignored Military's Strong Opposition To Torture Program", Huffington Post, 04/22/09

David Johnston, "U.S. Says Rendition to Continue, but With More Oversight", The New York Times, August 24, 2009

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., "America's Anti-Torture Tradition", The Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2005

Charles C. Krulak, Joseph P. Hoar, "It's Our Cage, Too: Torture Betrays Us and Breeds New Enemies", The Washington Post, May 17, 2007

Don Luce, "The Tiger Cages of Con Son", Peacework Magazine, November 2005

McQ, "Defending Torture? Condoning It As Well?", Right Wing News, January 29, 2009

Roger Roots, "How Often Does The Criminal Justice System Get It Wrong?", Innocence Project Website, February 5, 2001

Charlie Savage, "Closing GuantC!namo Fades as a Priority", The New York Times, June 25, 2010

Scott Shane, "Obama Takes a Hard Line Against Leaks to Press", NY Times, June 11, 2010

Comments can be emailed to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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