The Bush Administration’s loss of popularity – even credibility – around the world is not news to anyone living outside the United States (you’d have a hard time finding any boosters of the US in any foreign country) but the precipitous drop since Katrina is new. And every week some new allegation emerges that the Bushies cannot rebut. This week it was the use of torture by Americans, coupled with the practice of "rendition,” whereby a suspect is transferred to some secret location abroad where there are few witnesses to potential abuse.
This practice has been alleged in the past, but now the issue is heating up again. The Spanish government has been investigating claims that CIA aircraft stopped over several times on the island of Majorca while transporting terrorist suspects to various countries. Rumors have been flying about the location of these detention centres, with unspecified Eastern European countries considered most likely. And of course the situation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay has been known recognized since the war in Afghanistan began, and the abuse at Abu Ghraib is also well known.
However, this week the Administration has been confronted repeatedly over the issue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled around Europe, partly soothing politicians there, while also brazening the situation out. She denied that the US resorts to cruel and degrading interrogation methods, without giving any examples of unacceptable practices. Nor did she say whether the rules applied to private contractors or foreign interrogators. She did not say whether there were any exceptions to the rule. And she warned foreign governments not to challenge the US practices if they want to maintain any mutual cooperation in the war on terror.
This week was the annual Human Rights Day when the world marks the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since that document specifically outlaws torture, the United National High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour (see photo) took the occasion to warn that the US war on terror is eroding the worldwide ban on torture. Immediately (and not unexpectedly) U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton immediately replied with anger that “It was inappropriate and illegitimate for an international civil servant to second-guess the conduct that we’re engaged in the war on terror, with nothing more as evidence than what she reads in the newspaper.”
Both Arbour and Secretary General Kofi Annan replied that she was doing her job by raising the question. She further asked, “do you or do you not operate undisclosed detention centres in undisclosed locations? And if so, does the International Committee of the Red Cross have access or are people detained totally incommunicado?”
Arbour is almost certainly right in her allegation that the ban on torture is being “eroded.” I don’t have earlier polls, but an Associate Press-Ipsos poll was reported this week showing that in the United States, as well as Canada, Mexico, and Germany, people are divided on whether torture can ever be justified. Most people opposed torture under any circumstances in Spain and Italy. Whether he will gain political respect for it or not, Senator John McCain has been developing legislation in Congress to prohibit torture. There seems to be support among Republicans as well as Democrats, and some kind of deal with the White House may be in the works.
Naturally, I am shocked at the widespread acceptance of torture – though perhaps one should not be totally surprised. According to Amnesty International, two-thirds of all countries practice torture. Certainly torture was taken for granted as an appropriate method of extracting confessions or other information in previous centuries – notably by the Catholic Inquisition, though the interrogators were limited in the amount of injury they were allowed to use. Occasionally they would hand the prisoner over to a secular authority to finish the job, for they were allowed to inflict unlimited amounts of abuse.
Ms. Arbour has made it clear that, according to international law, there is no circumstance whatever that justifies the use of torture. No ifs, ands or buts. This flatly contradicts the Bush Administration’s equivocation on the matter, whose support for the use of torture is supposedly based entirely on practical “realpolitik” considerations. But in practical terms, there are serious questions about the validity of information that can be extracted by inflicting pain. Such information is known to be unreliable.
My own practical concerns are not only about the truthfulness of the information torture elicits, but about its psychological consequences – both on the victims (who often say that the memories stay with them endlessly) and, especially, on the perpetrators. What can be expected of young Americans who have been authorize to brutalize other human beings? What suffering will they undergo throughout their lives, or what toughness of character will they acquire as a way of protecting themselves from their own conscience? I am sure that the psychological pain for me would be even greater after I had perpetrated such abuse than after having received it.
Nevertheless, the Bush Administration had been garnering a degree of support from surprising sources – notably from the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who had proposed a hypothetical situation involving a “ticking time bomb.” According to this theory, even nations that normally uphold human rights can justify torture legally when they are holding a suspect who possesses knowledge, say, of the location of a time bomb that would soon explode and kill many innocent people. Dershowitz claims that he certainly does not support torture as a routine practice, but that it is important to think ahead and decide what circumstances might justify it, so that a “torture warrant” can be issued legally on the rare occasions when it's necessary.
I agree with Dershowitz to this extent: I think maybe George W. Bush should think ahead and specify the kinds of suspects on whom torture may appropriately be used. And he has perfectly adequate standards available, as a devout Christian who is supported primarily by other devout Americans. I suggest that he set up a panel of theologians to identify the kinds of persons whom Jesus would be willing to torture. I, for one, would be satisfied with that criterion.