Should Americans torture?

Time for a civics lesson.

The reaction to finding out that Americans tortured prisoners of war at the Guantanamo prison and in Iraq, and seem to still be using torture now in the Middle East has been a debate over whether torture produces valuable information. That is, do the ends justify the means? Is it worth our while to torture prisoners?

(I have to take a moment here to say torture. Not enhanced or harsh interrogation. We’re talking about the same torture techniques used by the Nazis. Torture.)

This is unfortunate and un-American. The question is not whether torture works. The question is, do the founding principles of the United States support torture? And the answer to that question is no.

Torturing people—prisoners, criminals, anyone—is unconstitutional. It is a violation of the human, civil, and natural rights this nation was founded to preserve. The U.S. has never condoned torture, including during wartime. One of the things that set us apart from the fascists we fought in World War II was our refusal to torture. We upheld the law even in very difficult circumstances. There was no torture of Nazi prisoners by American guards at Nuremberg.

Recognizing the especial temptation to torture enemies captured during war, the U.S. signed on to the 1949 Geneva Convention outlawing the torture of POWs.

One of the principles we are supposedly fighting for in the “war on terror” is the need to uphold human and civil rights. We cannot do that if we violate those rights.

So the end does not ever justify the means when it comes to torture. The “they did it first so we get to” argument often employed to support torture is hardly convincing. As Americans, we are dedicated to the principle of not sinking to the level of terrorists and war criminals. We have passed laws to prevent police officers from torturing confessions out of suspects. It is illegal to torture American prisoners in jail. We have agreed, at Geneva, to laws preventing torture of POWs.

Dressing torture up as “harsh interrogation” or “enhanced” interrogation makes it easier for Americans to condone “some” torture “sometimes.” But we cannot afford, as Americans, with our history, to use Nazi torture techniques—on anyone. Philip Zelikow, of the U.S. State Department, testified to a Congressional subcommittee on May 13, 2009, on torture by Americans and said this:

“The U.S. government, over the past seven years, adopted an unprecedented program in American history of coolly calculated, dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one.”

Coldly calculating torturers—is that how we think of ourselves as Americans? under any circumstances? No. We have not in our history ever officially condoned torture under any circumstances, including war. The only Confederate official put to death after our Civil War was the commandant of the Andersonville prison camp—for torture. It is not a part of our history, nor does it suddenly need to become so. Any goal that can only be achieved through torturing people is not a goal worthy of the United States.

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