To Torture Or Not To Torture?


President Theodore Roosevelt said in his 1906 State of the Union address, “No man can take part in the torture of a human being without having his own moral nature permanently lowered.” Interestingly enough, we find ourselves in a national debate about the definition of torture rather than in a critical discussion of the moral deterioration of people who engage in waterboarding, using dogs during interrogation, and subjecting people to intense temperatures or sleep deprivation.

The most frightening part of this debate is that when we fail to define torture, we create a slippery slope that can only lead toward applying physical or psychological coercion. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948 condemns the use of torture and of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Likewise, the United Nations Convention against Torture—signed in 1984 and which entered into force in 1987—defines this act as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession. While Bush Administration officials are oftentimes caught up in the discussion of what constitutes torture, they forget that the aim of these UN treaties is the complete elimination of such acts.

SEE: “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights)

Last week, the performance of Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey before the Senate Judiciary Committee was shocking. There was an element of surprise in the room when Mukasey repudiated the so-called “torture memo” by Jay Bybee comparing the “barbarism” of torture to what took place in Nazi concentration camps. Mukasey came off as thoughtful, honest and most importantly, independent. Unfortunately within 24 hours, and on the second day of his confirmation hearings, he refused to state unequivocally that waterboarding constitutes torture.

Waterboarding is an interrogation technique that is used by United States operatives in which an individual is immobilized head down, on an inclined board, with a cloth covering his/her face over which water is poured in order to simulate drowning. This act is illegal under Geneva Conventions, and is perhaps the most iconic widely cited examples of torture in history.

In a letter to Mukasey, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee demanded that he clarify his views on waterboarding. “Please respond to the following question,” they wrote. “Is the use of waterboarding, or inducing the misperception of drowning, as an interrogation technique illegal under U.S. law, including treaty obligations?” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, stated that he wouldn’t hold a vote on Mukasey’s confirmation until he received written responses to some questions raised after the two-day hearing.

Mukasey took the incongruous position that he wasn’t sure “what precisely it [waterboarding] involved.” The future Attorney General should be able to clearly explain his view on the legality of waterboarding, one of the most controversial interrogation techniques, and not deflect questions on this important subject. Mukasey’s statement reminds us of his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, when he stated, “What the experience has been…of captured soldiers, and captured military people from the past, may very well be different from the experience we are having with unlawful combatants who we face now. It’s a very different kind of person.”

Such statements that are commonly made by this Administration make all of us wonder whether these “new kinds of terrorists” are resistant to other forms of questioning.

For all Americans, Mukasey’s confirmation hearings and vote should be focused on torture. Torture simply does not work and destroys the dignity of the victim as well as the perpetrator. It is truly a defining issue, not just about the meaning of torture but one that affects the very fabric of our country. Former President Carter stated, “you can make your own definition of human rights and say we don’t violate them.” He added, “and you can make your own definition of torture and say we don’t violate them.”

We as Americans will not stand for the next United States Attorney General to find legal loopholes on the issue of torture. We must not only renounce the Administration’s ambiguous definitions of torture, but ALL forms of torture.

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