Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On Torture

Katherine Eban has garnered a good deal of praise for her article in Vanity Fair on torture techniques and medical ethics, but it should be pointed out that Jane Mayer was the first one to really touch on the subject with her truly chilling piece in The New Yorker ominously entitled "The Experiment." It wasn't the first time Mayer discusses torture in The New Yorker: a few months earlier she wrote a detailed work on extraordinary rendition simply called "Outsourcing Torture."

I find absolutely fascinating the pace at which this conversation is evolving -- it seems like it no one wants to talk about it at all. Any time a smart article on the subject comes out the right denounces the disclosure as being contrary to the interests of the war on terror (without ever mentioning anything about the potential for an act of torture to take place); while the left tepidly applauds the revelation of an abuse of power by the Bush administration, fervently declares torture to be wrong, then promptly forgets about it as quickly as possible. No one wants to have serious discussion about what is either going on or what should be going on in the dark places where civilians dare not to tread.

In my estimation there have only been a few serious attempts to engage this subject. Mark Bowden gave readers of the The Atlantic a primer with "The Dark Art of Interrogation" in 2003. Charles Krauthammer was roundly criticized for his article "The Truth about Torture," in which the specter of the "ticking time bomb" seemed to justify doing all kinds of things to people (even when there wasn't any ticking time bomb). Andrew Sullivan recently held forth on the use of the Bush administration's use of the euphemism "enhanced interrogation techniques." Yet the country isn't any closer to a national consensus on the matter than we were in the days after 9/11 when it became clear to almost everyone (whether they admitted it or not) that this was going to be a problem in need of a solution sooner rather than later.

The most evident proof of this occurred during the GOP presidential candidates' debate in South Carolina last May, when nearly each one of the candidates did their damnedest to demonstrate they would have no qualms approving of torture using every form of winking and nudging in their arsenal. They did this all while sharing the stage with someone who underwent 5 years of torture as a P.O.W. and who was the only one among them to denounce the practice outright. The incident was embarrassing to watch and will be examined by future historians in the same appalling light that currently colors our examination of black and white television footage of Southern sheriffs (in uniform, no less) dropping the n-word during documentaries of the Civil Rights Era .

The worst part about the peculiar silence on this issue is that we have the experience of other countries to demonstrate to us that having this difficult conversation will be far easier now than when such things as Truth and Reconciliation Committees need to be formed. America can not afford another Abu Ghraib, even if the next one doesn't have the graphic pictures to outrage the public. For my money, Mark Bowden arrives at what I believe to be the best moral, legal, and practical compromise given the current circumstances; but looking back at the South Carolina debates there are clearly a few folks that think otherwise, and at this rate we'll never reach a mutually agreeable conclusion.

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