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The Forgotten Futility of Torture

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Reprinted from To The Point Analyses

From flickr.com/photos/58939349@N00/526518334/: Implements of torture
Implements of torture
(image by Javier Kohen)
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Part I -- Futility

It has long been known that torture does not work. One can go back to the Enlightenment. In 1764 Cesare Beccaria published his groundbreaking work, On Crimes and Punishments. Beccaria had examined all the evidence available at that time and concluded that individuals under torture will tell their interrogators anything they want to hear, true or not, just to get the pain to stop. Beccaria's book led to a temporary waning of the state-ordered torture.

Nonetheless, the United States has used torture repeatedly. Indeed, the Senate Intelligence Committee's release of its report (five years in the making) on the Bush administration's use of torture testifies to only the most recent in a long line of such incidents. For instance, torture was used against prisoners during and immediately following the Spanish-American War, particularly in the Philippines. More recently the U.S. (and its adversary) used torture during the Vietnam War.

Confirming Beccaria's judgment, the consensus among U.S. military personnel who examined the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (the latest euphemism for torture) against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners was that it did not work. This conclusion has been supported by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for over five years. He has repeatedly said that he knows, from personal experience, that "victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it."

Who in the executive branch of the U.S. government remembers, or even cares, about this history? President Obama gave his blessings to the 11 December 2014 television appearance of John O. Brennan, the present head of the CIA, so that he could tell the nation that, following the 9-11 tragedy, tortured prisoners provided "useful and valuable" information. The Senate Intelligence Committee report calls such claims "exaggerated if not utterly false." Based on the evidence from Beccaria's time to the present, the committee report's position in this regard is the one to go with.

Part II -- Illegality

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Torture was made illegal in 1950 under the Third Geneva Convention, and this was reaffirmed in 1985 by the United Nations Convention against Torture. Both of these conventions were signed and ratified by the United States, making them the law of the land. Torture is also illegal under U.S. domestic laws such as the War Crimes Act of 1996.

Unfortunately, these laws and treaty obligations were called into question in 2002 by the Bush administration. To create a counter-position to them, the administration's Justice Department produced what are now known as the "torture memos." These postulated that the war against terrorism that followed 9-11 was a unique situation that nullified all the standing laws preventing torture.

These memos were self-serving interpretations of the president's powers during war and time of emergency. Contrived as they were, they served as Bush's legal justification for his administration's policy of waterboarding, "rectal hydration," sleep deprivation, and other forms of physical abuse. As Dick Cheney, Bush's pugnacious vice president, recently said, this was no rogue operation. "This program was authorized" by the memos. The question of how one legitimately "authorizes" what has already been determined to be illegal, immoral and degrading seems never to have occurred to Cheney.

When we weigh the authority of the "torture memos" against international law, treaty obligations, and indeed U.S. domestic law, we must conclude that Bush's policy of torture was illegal. Let me put the consequences of that reasonable conclusion in plain English: President George W. Bush and everyone else in his administration involved in formulating, justifying and carrying out the policy of torture are criminals. So why hasn't Mr. Bush (to say nothing of the rest of this gang) been brought to trial for his crimes?

One possible reason harks back to 1972-1973, when the infamous Watergate scandal was revealing President Richard Nixon's criminality. At that time the main line of argument was that you don't want an American president going to jail. This would constitute just too much of a national embarrassment. Therefore the pardon Nixon received was the best solution to a messy problem. Being of a contrary nature even back then, this writer went about saying that it was precisely because Nixon was the president that you wanted him on trial and, when convicted, put in jail. You wanted that precedent set because it would shape, for the better, the behavior of future presidents.

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Of course, this course of action was never followed, and so when it came to George W. Bush, there was no such precedent to provoke any second thoughts. Perhaps he would not have hesitated in any case. We will never know.

Part III -- The Present Debate

At present, the debate within the Beltway is not over the Bush administration's culpability for illegal acts, but rather over the wisdom of releasing the Senate Intelligence Committee's report detailing the CIA use of torture on the president's orders. In other words, the wisdom of making public the evidence of Bush's criminality. Many feel that the report will make some foreigners so angry that they will attack Americans abroad. But then those folks already knew about U.S. torture and don't need the details to make them angry.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the present chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is the one who decided to release the report on torture. She did so because she is determined to "foreclose any prospect that the United States might contemplate such tactics again." She did not believe arguing about the morality of torture would achieve that goal and so she "set out to prove [through the released report] that they [techniques of torture] did not work." There are two things wrong with Feinstein's reasoning in this regard:

First, Feinstein too appears ignorant of the fact that the futility of torture has been established for hundreds of years. And, just because torture has long been demonstrated not to work, what is the probability that a restatement of this fact will prevent the U.S. from using it again in the future? As was the case in the Philippines, Vietnam, and in the war on terror, future American leaders will remain ignorant of, or just forget about, torture's futility.

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http://www.tothepointanalyses.com
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign
Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest
; America's
Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli
Statehood
; and Islamic Fundamentalism. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.

His blog To The Point Analyses now has its own Facebook page. Along with the analyses, the Facebook page will also have reviews, pictures, and other analogous material.


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