Other Voices

Do we believe it when we say torture is justified?

After many years of teaching in college, I’ve concluded that few demographic groups are more pitiless, hardhearted and coldblooded than a class full of college freshmen.

Capital punishment? My students are devoted proponents, arguing that justice should be swift and merciless.

In fact, many of them don’t blink when they consider punishments such as hand amputation for theft and execution by stoning, practices still current in some countries.

And torture? They’ve seen plenty of it on TV and it seems to work. Why should we hesitate to inflict pain if we can prevent a terrorist attack on innocent people?

But among their fellow citizens my students aren’t that unusual. Many Americans aren’t squeamish about torture, in theory, at least.

Sarah Palin got laughs and cheers in April at the National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis when she said, “Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

In fact, many of us aren’t particularly disgusted or repulsed by torture in the abstract. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll reports that 53 percent of Americans believe that torture “often or sometimes” is justified.

Torture is one of warfare’s oldest weapons, and while its effectiveness is questionable few countries have defeated others without its use. The United States isn’t an exception.

Tim Weiner’s 2007 history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, documents some of the systematic and secret programs developed to dominate and terrorize an enemy.

Between 1968 and 1971 the Phoenix program used torture, Weiner reports, to interrogate Viet Cong suspects. More than 20,000 were killed.

But we’ve never been proud of our use of torture. In fact, the Intelligence Committee’s report documents efforts by the CIA to deny or cover up the post-9/11 torture program, a sure sign that torture is something that we shouldn’t be doing.

And torture apologists — Dick Cheney is notable — have tried to find ways to rationalize practices that are clearly torture.

These rationalizations aren’t convincing.

The transparency of the executive summary of the Committee’s torture report is important, necessary, and welcome. But it’s a mistake to see it as absolution for a temporary moral deviation into torture caused by fear and an excess of caution after 9/11.

America’s use of torture — and our embarrassment over it — has a history that long pre-dates 9/11. Fortunately, it still pricks our conscience.

And after the Intelligence Committee’s report, no one articulated that conscience more eloquently than Sen. John McCain, who called torture a stain on our national honor.

Having been tortured during his captivity in North Vietnam, he speaks with authority that apologists like Cheney cannot gainsay.

John M. Crisp teaches at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. jcrisp@delmar.edu