On Torture

Paul Chadwick
March 15, 2008.

I'm 63 years old, American, and for as long as I can remember, probably from the 1952 presidential campaign when my dad wore an "I Like Ike" button and my mom took me to watch General Eisenhower speak from the back of a train downtown in Royal Oak, Michigan, and Mr. Garen's fifth-grade civics class at Whittier Elementary School, I have been proud of my country. There have been difficult times, especially the Viet Nam fiasco and Iran/Contra, but in the end, reason and right prevailed, and as a nation by and large the United States did the right thing. Until, that is, the last five years.

The September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center was a terrible thing. My son, working in Manhattan, called me from his office that morning and alerted me to the events. I watched on my television in Danville, California, horrified, as the second plane hit and the towers collapsed. The attack demanded retaliation, and the U.S. did the right thing with international support, invading Afghanistan to pursue the planners and their supporters at their base.

Then an even more terrible thing happened. My country lost its direction and went collectively insane. Its president, having declared a right to wage preemptive war, snubbed the United Nations, twisted intelligence, and attacked a country that, although under control of a maddeningly arrogant and problematic tyrant, had no connection to the attack on us, but one on which right-wing war-mongering partisans who came to dominate decision-making in his administration had been urging an attack for over a decade. Driven by what were most likely irrational fears of additional terrorism on U.S. soil, much of the public and a congressional majority of both parties supported these actions. Bad led to worse. We became mired in a costly occupation and watched as the country we needlessly and recklessly invaded deteriorated into chaos, our soldiers became entrapped in a hostile but entirely predictable civil war, and this involvement distracted and diverted resources from our effort to capture the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. We learned, with vivid and haunting photographic evidence in some cases, that Americans had tortured and continued to torture prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and other sites maintained by our military and intelligence organizations around the world. We learned of secret prisons and extraordinary renditions, along with denial of the rights of habeus corpus for many prisoners, some of them US citizens. Our President, Vice President, Attorney General, and Secretary of Defense supported, defended, and invented justifications for many of these actions, in violation of international law and the long-standing Geneva Conventions. The international community soured, and we lost much of the respect and support that America had enjoyed after the tragedies of September 11, 2001. All the while our Congress continued to provide funding requested by the administration and made a few feints and jabs but failed to take effective action to put an end to these egregious acts.

I was, as many Americans, becoming depressed and progressively more jaded by these events when, in 2006, a telephone conversation with my father quickly put the situation in perspective. My dad will be 92 years old this year. He lives alone in Down-East Maine after moving there from Michigan in 2001 and building his own house. For all the disagreements we might have had over the years, I've always known my dad as an extremely moral and ethical individual. When I was young, he taught me absolute respect for the rights of others. I may have seen him as insensitive to his own family at times, but he has always respected the law and done what he thought was right. Educated as an electrical engineer, he served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and for many years worked as a radar and laser specialist for defense contractors where maintaining security clearance was a necessity. When I suggested applying for conscientious objector status during the Viet Nam War, my dad cautioned me against it. "If you do that, you'll never be able to get a security clearance," he said. Now, his comment was, "We have to impeach these people!"

I said, "That's not likely to happen."

My dad responded, "It's essential! It's the only way we can regain our moral position and respect internationally. We have to show the world that we completely and utterly disapprove and reject what these people have been doing."

Torture is immoral and illegal under international law. It doesn't matter if you call it by other names, euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" etc. Torture is torture, and intelligent human beings know what constitutes torture. Techniques like waterboarding, apparently invented during the Spanish Inquisition, have been understood to be torture for hundreds of years. The U.S. has supported and participated in prosecution of individuals from other nations who have engaged in these very tactics. Statements by officials in our administration that this is not torture or that they do not know enough to say this is torture are disingenuous, at the very least, and, at most, evidence ignorance, arrogance, and a bullying attitude not worthy of our country. Preemptive war is illegal under international law. A preemptive attack on France by Germany precipitated WWI. A preemptive attack by Japan on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor made certain the involvement of the United States in WWII. Virtually every war in history has begun with an unprovoked attack by an aggressor nation on another, often justified as preemptive of some perceived threat.

The United States, as a peaceful nation. has historically respected other nations and been respected as a peaceful nation that would not engage in torture or perpetrate an unprovoked attack on another country in violation of international law. Our respect for individual rights and principles of international law, as pointed out by many of the essays in the Washington Monthly article also linked from this website, has been responsible for the respected position America has occupied in the world. In the past five years, we have violated our principles and lost our right to much of this respect. It is important that we repudiate the policies and hold responsible the individuals that have led to this downfall and that we restore our position of moral leadership in the world. Congress, the American public, and the next administration must not waver in this necessity.

Paul Chadwick grew up in Michigan, trained as a chemist and molecular biologist, and worked in California for many years as marketing vice president for a laboratory instrument manufacturer. He is now a consultant and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.