The New Oxford American Dictionary defines torture as: (1) “the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain;” (2) “great physical or mental suffering or anxiety;” (3) “a cause of suffering or anxiety.”
I found the first definition quite curious because the act was defined as a function of the act’s intent, without qualifying the act itself.
The moral case for nonviolence is not a new one, as many great minds—such as Mahatma Gandhi and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—have already made it in the past. In order to relinquish oneself from the bondage of Pharaoh, one cannot use Pharaoh’s rules, because the tacit implication, then, is that the path to liberation comes from Pharaoh and his mechanisms are therefore validated. In reality, the path to liberation is a course that is a complete reversal of, and a paradigm-shift away from, Pharaoh’s system. One must abandon and reject all of Pharaoh’s rules to bring about a new paradigm in which others are regarded as neighbors and not commodities. This is why using violence, no matter what the impetus, invariably transforms the one fighting against evil into an instrument of evil, perpetuating the cycle of retribution, malice, and death. Especially in the case of war waged by men and women who are not present on the battlefield, the perpetrators rarely suffer while the innocent overwhelmingly do, thereby answering injustice with blameless affliction.
The epitome of cruelty and hatred comes when an offense is considered so grievous that no matter what the offended does in retaliation, it is morally justified—yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. On a recent episode of “Meet the Press,” former Vice President Dick Cheney defended the American government and the CIA in their use of torture against suspects in the aftermath of 9/11. In fact, Mr. Cheney disputed that what was done was torture based on three reasons: (1) such acts were sanctioned by the Justice Department; (2) it was not officially part of the interrogation program; (3) relative to 9/11, the torture done to detained suspects did not compare. “With respect to trying to define that as torture I come back to the proposition torture was what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There’s no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation,” Cheney said.
While the 3,000 American deaths on 9/11 is a tragedy, we must also remain cognizant that more than 6,000 members of American forces and 160,000 civilian lives (in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) have been lost since the war on terror began more than 10 years ago.
Despite the fact that a quarter of the detainees were subsequently found to be innocent after being tortured, Mr. Cheney said, “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective,” and “I’d do it again in a minute.”
And herein lies the crux of the moral dilemma. Our former vice president feels that the horrific events of 9/11 will forever be remembered and never be forgiven because a wrong has been committed against the United States. There is also a terrorist somewhere in the world who feels that an inexcusable injustice has been committed against him, his family, or his nation, and as a result feels justified in inflicting atrocities against Americans as those responsible for causing this harm. Both men are using the same logic to reach the same conclusion: that some members of humanity are guilty, have blood on their hands, and are therefore justly deserving of cruel and barbaric punishment.
Both individuals have a right to grieve, but both men have yet to understand that retributive, tit-for-tat, terroristic thinking will only feed and perpetuate the cycle of destruction. When you think like and use the techniques of a terrorists, you essentially become a terrorist, and the most powerful military power on Earth can certainly do far more damage than fringe groups in remote parts of the world. How can America dare to proclaim grievances when we have become that which we allegedly detest and stand against?
Furthermore, the two men who designed, led, and directed the callous examinations of Al-Qaeda operatives in the CIA’s torture program, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, are merely chosen figureheads on which to place blame. These men certainly did play an active role in the debacle—and were compensated very well for their efforts, together being paid more than $80 million—but were also part of a larger, multilayered and devious system that required moral deficiencies on many levels in order for the program to go foreword. Mr. Mitchell, for example, personally waterboarded Abu Zubaydah. Soon after Mr. Mitchell began working for the CIA, the agency’s top lawyer, John Rizzo, described the torture tactics as “sadistic and terrifying,” but it was the lawyers in the U.S. Justice Department that determined such tactics were legal. As is often the case, evil usually thrives most when those in a position to stop it turn their heads the other way.
Indeed, President Obama banned torture in 2009 through an executive order, but in this order he also consciously decided not to prosecute those who did the torturing. In a perverse way, this would be the “logical” thing to do, since prosecuting them would mean taking responsibility and holding them accountable. Of course, that did not happen because it is always much easier to either overlook or rationalize the misdeeds that occur under your own roof.
The author of the 19th-century book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, once said, “America is great because she is good. If American ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Clearly, the Senate’s torture report speaks for itself.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal