(Remarks at Torture Accountability Action Day rally in Washington, D.C., June 25, 2009 -- video of this and other speeches at AfterDowningStreet.org)
I was reading yesterday about a boy who was probably 12 years old when our nation imprisoned him in 2002. We held him in Afghanistan, but I don't mean "held" in the sense in which one lovingly holds a baby. We put a hood on him, stripped him, shackled him and shoved him down stairs. We brought him to Guantanamo, kicked him, beat him, broke his nose, pepper sprayed him, and deprived him of sleep for many days. In 2003 he tried to kill himself by slamming his head against a wall.
This boy, like most Gitmo captives, does not stand accused of international terrorism. And the evidence that this boy had, at 12 years old, fought back against the illegal aggressors in his country comes from torture, so our government is seeking to hold him forever without putting him on trial. He's now 19, having spent his entire teenage years in a death camp, in a place where the only way out appears to be death, and if our government has its way he'll move to some other death camp so that we can "close Guantanamo" and he'll be held there forever and ever until he dies, with his jailers performing annual reviews that they will grotesquely refer to as "due process." Meanwhile, prosecuting those who tortured this child, those who ordered it done, those who provided legalistic justifications, or those who created the entire torture program is not yet even under consideration.
I was on a radio show last night and a man called in to accuse me of perversely targeting the United States government for criticism and taking up the cause of the worst criminals on earth, when I could be focusing on fighting diseases that kill many more people than we have tortured. Well, many of us are active in campaigning for better healthcare, but pointing to some other cause of more deaths and injuries never excuses a crime. Torture is a crime. A president can pardon it. He cannot legally prevent our Justice Department from prosecuting it. And when he does, and we sit back on our couches and cheer for Iranians taking to the streets, then our president and all future presidents acquire the power to ignore all laws. Already our State Department has lost the ability to tell other nations not to torture, including nations that might torture the sort of people that all callers to radio shows in the United States can be counted on to care about, namely Americans. In fact, we can all agree quite easily that torture should be punished when Americans are the victims of it. The trick is to shift our attention to cases in which Americans are the perpetrators and yet maintain our ability to think straight. A poll today says a strong majority supports banning all torture. No news on what percentage knows it already is banned.
Most of the people we have tortured have been innocent of any wrongdoing. And there is no evidence that torture has saved anyone's life. Expert interrogators do not use torture because it does not work as quickly or as reliably as other methods. So torturing someone to save your kidnapped child (which callers to radio shows will explain to you is the purpose of all torturing) would be less likely to save your kidnapped child than relying on a skilled interrogator.
Torturing people brutalizes the torturers as well, damaging them and those they live with. Torturing damages our society, brutalizing the thoughts and practices of prison guards, police, and citizens. And, most damaging of all, torture establishes the myth that certain people cannot be spoken to and must be brutalized. This creates horrible prejudices, because the people who supposedly must be tortured are always defined as part of a certain racial, religious, or cultural group that comes to be seen as sub-human. This allows torturing them to be justified as both an interrogation tool and a punishment without any need for logical coherence.
Torture is illegal and morally wrong with no imaginable utilitarian exceptions to that rule. It is our job not just to condemn torture but to prevent it, to deter it. And the only way to deter it is to stop treating it as a policy difference, start treating it as a crime, and quit attempting to look forward with our heads shoved up our ass.
Numerous reports document ongoing torture in Iraq, in Bagram, and in Guantanamo. As long as torture is not treated as the crime our laws make it, prison guards holding people outside any legal system are going to torture. You cannot end torture and yet not punish it, because only punishing it can end it. Justice Marshall back there behind me (a statue in the park) would think we'd put a king back on the throne.
There may be a vote today in Congress on whether to require that the military video tape its interrogations. That would be a start if it could get through the Senate, but will there be a penalty for not doing so, or for destroying the tapes? And what about the FBI and CIA? The president's task force is expected to recommend that teams formed from these two agencies interrogate captives in one way if they plan to charge them with crimes, and a different way if they just plan to illegally hold them. Our founding fathers designed systems expecting the worst of people. This plan requires better than angels. And as long as we do not prosecute torturers, these are the sorts of plans we will see.
The Park Service threatened to charge us with a crime if we demonstrated waterboarding here today. The Park Service should march with us this afternoon to the Department of Justice where we will expect the same demand to be made with regard to Richard B. Cheney.