(Remarks at Torture Accountability Action Day rally in Washington, D.C., June 25, 2009 -- video of this and other speeches at AfterDowningStreet.org)
Have you ever held a little baby in your arms? Raise your hand if you have. A toddler is as delicate and precious as a baby, but able to move around and get hurt. Bigger kids can move faster and farther. Our instincts should be to protect them.
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.
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.
It is not at all clear, in fact, that any disease I could be researching a cure for takes more lives than US torture does. We've tortured many people to death. According to the U.S. military and the FBI, US torture has been a major recruiting tool for anti-U.S. terrorists and a cause of the death of thousands of Americans. And we tortured to force false confessions justifying an attack on Iraq. We even did so after the invasion. That invasion and occupation has killed over a million Iraqis and thousands of Americans at enormous cost in dollars and in safety and prospects for peace. One justification for the war was to stop Iraqi torture, but Iraq now tortures and America can say nothing against it. In fact we can say nothing against any war crimes or the crime of aggressive war. We have made the greatest horrors permissible.
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.