Time to be honest about torture

Readers who e-mail me about torture sometimes submit these two seemingly contradictory propositions: (1) Water boarding isn’t torture; and (2) without water boarding, the United States would have suffered a second visitation of 9/11.

I wonder if there’s a way of eradicating the first proposition altogether. I’m guessing that most people who argue that waterboarding isn’t torture have never experienced it. Rather than undertaking the experiment myself, I’d prefer to rely on my imagination, which tells me that waterboarding is a horrifying ordeal.

But we also have the testimony of articulate writers who have been water-boarded. Henri Alleg, a French journalist who supported Algerian independence, was water-boarded by his fellow Frenchmen in the 1950s. He called it "agony."

And last week Jesse Ventura, former Minnesota governor, Navy Seal, professional wrestler, and straight-talking tough guy, told Larry King about being water-boarded as part of his military training. His conclusion was emphatic: waterboarding is torture.

In fact, one e-mailer informed me that when the rack and other traditional methods of torture failed, the Spanish Inquisitors turned to water boarding as the torture of last resort. I don’t know if this is true or not, but apparently waterboarding has been part of the repertoire of the accomplished torturer for a long time.

Because they’re more transparent and vulnerable to criticism, democracies — France and Britain, for example, and now us — have generally preferred what political scientist Darius Rejali calls "clean torture," practices like water boarding that leave no scars, except perhaps psychological ones, but are torture, nevertheless.

But do they work? The jury is still out on whether "enhanced interrogation techniques" were actually instrumental in preventing another 9/11, and this uncertainty is probably a good justification for a formal investigation of the "9/11 torture episode," whether anyone is actually prosecuted for breaking laws against torture or not.

However, this pragmatic approach to torture — "it’s okay if it works" — should make us a little uncomfortable. Unsavory atrocities have been committed in the service of many supposed worthwhile objectives, but on history’s grand scale they often turned out to be old-fashioned barbarisms.

Furthermore, if "clean torture" is acceptable to prevent an atrocity like 9/11, no philosophical barrier prevents us from regressing to the truly uncivilized tortures of the past. Try Googling, for example, "hanged, drawn, and quartered" for a sense of the historical precedents.

But breaking our own laws with impunity is a dangerous slope, as well. And few Americans will insist on a scruple against torture if we could with certainty prevent another 9/11. Maybe a "doomsday exemption" in our laws against torture is called for, a stipulation that permits "enhanced" techniques in the improbable hypothetical circumstance that is often used to defend torture, the "ticking-time-bomb" scenario.

After all, a conscientious citizen who never speeds is justified in rushing his pregnant wife to the delivery room at a rate beyond the posted speed limit. And a devoted vegetarian, marooned on a desert island, might eat meat — even human flesh — in order to survive, but that doesn’t turn him into a carnivore, or a cannibal. And these extraordinary circumstances should have little bearing on how we set up the norms that govern our society.

So maybe we can find a way past our oblivious self-deception about torture. The fact that our leaders have tried to conceal it with secret memos and disingenuous statements ("The United States does not torture.") should be sufficient confirmation that we were doing something we’re ashamed of.

But the only thing worse than a nation that tortures is a nation that tortures in secret, then denies it publicly in self-righteous tones. It’s much better and more honest to look closely at this episode, and disclose who did what to whom and how often and with what results, then pardon the perpetrators, and resolve never to torture again.

Unless we have to.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)