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The Moral Measure of a Civilization Is in Its Treatment of Enemies

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Message Scott Atran
LTC Beaver: We will need documentation to protect us. 

Friedman: Yes, if someone dies while aggressive techniques are being used, regardless of the cause of death, the backlash of attention would be severely detrimental. Everything must be approved and documented. 

Lt. Beaver wrote a now-infamous Oct. 11, 2002, memo that determined abusive methods could be used against detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison because they were not considered prisoners of war. Her proposed methods included extended isolation, 20-hour interrogations, death threats and waterboarding. She later told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "it was simply not foreseeable" that her memo became the primary justification for then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's approval to use harsher methods, which Vice-President Dick Cheney later admitted (or rather vaunted) personally signing off on: 

"I cannot, however, accept responsibility for what happened to my legal opinion after I properly submitted it to my chain of command.... I did not expect that my opinion, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Amy Judge Advocate General's Corps, would become the final word on interrogation policies and practices within the Department of Defense." 

Although then U.S Attorney General John Aschcroft also approved waterboarding and other cruel techniques, complaints by FBI agents about abusive interrogation tactics at Guantanamo and other U.S. military sites reached the White House and National Security Council but prompted no effort to curb practices that the agents considered ineffective and illegal. 

The most generous interpretation of the decisions of our political leadership to torture in this way, and of the craven acquiescence to it by elements in our intelligence community and military leadership, was that the U.S government was in a panic after 9/11: desperate for information that would save American lives from further surprise attack, and also eager for some kind of proof that the administration had been right about justify the "liberation" of Iraq because of the threat from its association with Al-Qaeda or because of its Weapons of Mass Destruction, or whatever. The discussions are chilling, and reminiscent of those revealed at the Nuremberg trials and elsewhere between the German SS and army officials of the Wehrmacht and prison authorities, who were also divided over how to treat detainees and avoid the "negative attention" of the Red Cross at Theresienstadt and other concentration camps. 

There is always a concerted effort of those involved in cruelty, and their apologists, to bury ethical concerns underneath legalistic mumbo jumbo and to ignore the overriding question for any civilization: Is this moral? It is moral progress, I believe, that there more people than not who find Abu Ghraib and waterboarding disgusting. Unfortunately, a number of members of the U.S. government have not been loathe to exploit the depths of human misery and degradation. 

Reputation, like life itself, is a complex affair that is difficult to sustain but simple to destroy. As General Douglas Stone, who took over charge of detainees for the Multi National Force in Iraq after the Abu Ghraib scandal, told me last year before he retired from his command: 

"We have turned around 180 degrees to show respect for any of the detainees in our care: respect for the culture, for the religion and for the history of the place where our compounds are. But what those few did [at Abu Ghraib] will probably be the images best remembered of this war for a hundred years from now." 

President Obama, like General Stone, clearly recognizes that cruel and abusive punishment - whether called "harsh interrogation" or "torture" - violate the basic principles upon which the American Republic was founded regarding the physical sanctity of the individual, principles that have served as the template for all subsequent elaborations of human rights around the globe. But the restoration of our reputation and standing in the world requires more than just a restatement of principles. It requires that those who violate those principles be brought to justice.

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Scott Atran is research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris; presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City; and visiting professor of psychology and public (more...)
 
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