Sullivan on Torture

I can find nothing to disagree with in this heart-breakingly good essay by Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic: The abolition of torture.

For the most part, it’s a passionate argument against Charles Krauthammer’s recent piece in The Weekly Standard, in which Krauthammer said that torture by the US government should be legalized. But along the way there’s a lot of really good stuff that gets right to the heart of what’s been driving me nuts lately.

There was this bit:

What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism. You see one individual granted the most complete power he can ever hold over another. Not just confinement of his mobility–the abolition of his very agency. Torture uses a person’s body to remove from his own control his conscience, his thoughts, his faith, his selfhood. The CIA’s definition of “waterboarding”–recently leaked to ABC News–describes that process in plain English: “The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.” The ABC report then noted, “According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the waterboarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said Al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two and a half minutes before begging to confess.”

And this bit:

The entire point of the war on terrorism, according to the president, is to advance freedom and democracy in the Arab world. In Iraq, we had a chance not just to tell but to show the Iraqi people how a democracy acts. And, tragically, in one critical respect, we failed. That failure undoubtedly contributed to the increased legitimacy of the insurgency and illegitimacy of the occupation, and it made collaboration between informed Sunnis and U.S. forces far less likely. What minuscule intelligence we might have plausibly gained from torturing and abusing detainees is vastly outweighed by the intelligence we have forfeited by alienating many otherwise sympathetic Iraqis and Afghans, by deepening the divide between the democracies, and by sullying the West’s reputation in the Middle East. Ask yourself: Why does Al Qaeda tell its detainees to claim torture regardless of what happens to them in U.S. custody? Because Al Qaeda knows that one of America’s greatest weapons in this war is its reputation as a repository of freedom and decency. Our policy of permissible torture has handed Al Qaeda this weapon–to use against us. It is not just a moral tragedy. It is a pragmatic disaster. Why compound these crimes and errors by subsequently legalizing them, as Krauthammer (explicitly) and the president (implicitly) are proposing?

And finally, from Sullivan’s powerful conclusion:

The war on terrorism is, after all, a religious war in many senses. It is a war to defend the separation of church and state as critical to the existence of freedom, including religious freedom. It is a war to persuade the silent majority of Muslims that the West offers a better way–more decency, freedom, and humanity than the autocracies they live under and the totalitarian theocracies waiting in the wings. By endorsing torture–on anyone, anywhere, for any reason–we help obliterate the very values we are trying to promote. You can see this contradiction in Krauthammer’s own words: We are “morally compelled” to commit “a terrible and monstrous thing.” We are obliged to destroy the village in order to save it. We have to extinguish the most basic principle that defines America in order to save America.

No, we don’t. In order to retain fundamental American values, we have to banish from the United States the totalitarian impulse that is integral to every act of torture. We have to ensure that the virus of tyranny is never given an opening to infect the Constitution and replicate into something that corrupts as deeply as it wounds. We should mark the words of Ian Fishback, one of the heroes of this war: “Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.’” If we legalize torture, even under constrained conditions, we will have given up a large part of the idea that is America. We will have lost the war before we have given ourselves the chance to win it.

The Bush administration, consciously or not, seeks the destruction of America. It seeks to succeed where al Qaeda failed on 9/11. Bush’s stunted moral development, his hard-partying fratboy’s approach to right and wrong, in combination with his willingness to surround himself by and take the advice of people who are downright evil (like Dick Cheney) or stupid (like Donald Rumsfeld) or hearts-aflutter infatuated with him (like Condoleeza Rice), have led us to this place.

But America is bigger than George Bush’s limited imagination. It’s Captain Fishback’s America. It’s my America. It’s your America. It’s worth fighting for.

One Response to “Sullivan on Torture”

  1. Steve Says:

    The entire Sullivan article was brilliant and moving, and I second jbc’s encouragement for you to read it.

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