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Taguba, Torture, And Abu Ghraib

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"Among the corrosive lies a nation at war tells itself is that the glory - the lofty goals announced beforehand, the victories, the liberation of the oppressed - belongs to the country as a whole; but the failure - the accidents, the unaccounted civilian dead, the crimes and the atrocities - is always exceptional."

In the days after a shocked world beheld the vacation pictures of depraved American soldiers enjoying their stay at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein too enjoyed torturing innocent Iraqis, Phillip Kennicott of the Washington Post wrote these poignant words. Americans, though by and large horrified by these scenes, were resting their collective conscience assured by the President that these reprehensible acts were the handiwork of no more than “a few bad apples”, and not representative of the overall U.S policy toward the treatment of prisoners.

Kennicott’s was a lonely voice we didn’t and still do not want to hear. Americans do not but must believe, as he said further, that "great national crimes begin with acts of misguided individuals; and no matter how many people are held directly accountable for these crimes, we are, collectively, responsible for what these individuals have done. We live in a democracy. Every errant smart bomb, every dead civilian, every sodomized prisoner, is ours."

Multiple Pentagon investigations into the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib have each provided final explanations, and resulted in punishments for those smiling soldiers. Yet each investigation has failed to punish anyone outside Abu Ghraib, even as the independent panel investigating the abuses, chaired by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, criticized the Pentagon’s civilian leadership up the chain-of-command to and including then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Even now, well into 2007, there are continuing revelations of torture, murder, and maltreatment of detainees and corpses in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and in secret CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.  And this week comes the latest. In the June 25th issue of the New Yorker magazine (, veteran reporter and thorn in the administration’s side Seymour Hersh details how Army Major General Antonio Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, became one of its casualties. It makes for solemn reading as to how blatantly those in the administration, including the president himself, have lied when telling the American public time and again that they do not support torture.

Torture makes no moral or common sense. No matter how certain their guilt, torturing prisoners blurs the line between us and those we claim as our enemies. In torturing prisoners, we become what we are fighting against.

There are practical arguments as well against the use of torture: Torture does not produce reliable intelligence; torture of detainees held by the U.S. hands our enemies a dangerous excuse to torture our soldiers when they are captured; and torture’s negative impact on America’s reputation and security undermines the larger “war” against terrorism.

But that there would even be debate over torture begs the question of who we are, of what we have become. The rule of law both secular and heavenly makes plain that cruel and inhuman punishment is beneath the dignity of men and nations. Did our dignity collapse in the rubble of the twin towers?

Why would anyone want to defend torture ever? Torture is an unqualified evil that stains our souls. Torments inflicted on body and mind violate the intrinsic dignity and worth of the human being, and erode the character of the nation that tortures.

Moreover, how is it that those who profess to walk with God and speak his wishes condone or even authorize the harm of a human life believed made in his image? Jesus was tortured on the cross by the Roman Empire. How can any Christian support any kind of torture?

Torture is always wrong. Always. It is impermissible in all circumstances. Yes, this is moral absolutism. When it comes to torture, moral relativism leads us into the caves of our purported enemies, where we'll end up meeting ourselves.

Authorizing torture trusts government simply too much. As Mr. Kennicott reminded us, we live in a democracy, and every tortured prisoner is ours. 


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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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