The idiocy of defending torture

I know a man who tortures his dog. He ties the dog to a board, tilts the board downward, smothers the dog’s face with a cloth, and then soaks the cloth with water. The terrified creature feels as if it is drowning, but because its lungs remain higher than its mouth, it doesn’t. This man told me he did this to his dog seventeen times last month.

In fact, I don’t actually know such a man, but I do know men who approve of such acts, as long as the victims are human beings rather than dogs. This is the official position of the Bush administration on the interrogation technique known as “water-boarding.” According to the Pentagon, water-boarding has been employed “regularly” as a “control measure” at the Guantanamo Bay internment camp. One prisoner was subjected to water-boarding seventeen times in the course of a month.

The Pentagon report also reveals that this prisoner was kept awake for 18-20 hours for 48 out of 54 consecutive days, that he was forced to wear bras and thongs on his head, that he was prevented from praying, that he was forced to crawl around on a dog lead and perform dog tricks, that he was told his mother and sister were whores, and that he was subjected to extensive body cavity searches despite having spent 160 days in solitary confinement.

All of these interrogation techniques have been approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Administration lawyers take the position that none of this is “inhumane,” that none of it constitutes “torture,” and that therefore it is all legal under the Geneva Conventions. Their position logically requires the conclusion that it would be lawful to subject American prisoners of war to the same treatment.

Sen. John McCain disagrees and has sponsored a bill that would ban such practices. As a POW, McCain was tortured by his North Vietnamese captors, so his opinion on the matter carries more weight than that of, say, Vice President Cheney, who carefully avoided military service by procuring four draft deferments during the Vietnam War (he has since explained that he had “other priorities”), and who is now the administration’s most enthusiastic proponent of torture.

McCain’s bill passed the Senate by a 90-9 vote, but President Bush is threatening to make it the first piece of legislation he has ever vetoed. “Anything we do is within the law,” the president explained last week. “We do not torture.” (Orwell: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”)

The Wall Street Journal agrees and describes water-boarding as “merely a psychological technique designed to break a detainee.” In an astounding editorial, one of the nation’s leading newspapers claims that banning torture — excuse me, a “psychological technique” — would “telegraph to every terrorist in the world that he has absolutely nothing to fear from silence should he fall into U.S. hands.”

It takes a special brand of idiocy to argue that people who are eager to blow themselves up in the pursuit of a delusional martyrdom are going to be deterred by the official position of the American government regarding the interrogation of prisoners. The Journal also argues that banning torture may lead to a “mass-casualty attack.” This is a phony concern, because interrogators who genuinely believe they are in such a desperate situation aren’t going to pay attention to the rules anyway.

What legalizing torture really does is to ensure it becomes routine. (The government has already admitted that at least five prisoners have been tortured to death.) Bush’s defense of torture comes down to a single argument: that atrocious acts are permissible in the pursuit of sufficiently important ends. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden would agree.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)