It is shocking enough that the United States is even engaged in a debate over whether the U.S. government should be torturing or not. Historically, torture has been committed by evil, medieval regimes, whose methods of brutally torturing people are memorialized in torture museums in various parts of Great Britain and Europe, or by communist or other dictatorial regimes around the world. Never in my wildest dreams, when I was young, ever dream that the United States would be discussing whether to embrace torture as a formal policy, much less actually adopting it.
The moral argument against torture is that it’s simply wrong. That argument holds that even if torture succeeds in extracting information or a confession, it still should not be utilized, simply because it’s wrong, from both a moral and religious standpoint, to do this to people, even when they’re guilty. The utilitarian argument is that it’s not a reliable means of gaining information or confessions because people will say anything when being tortured.
But there’s another argument against torture that is oftentimes ignored — the torture of people who are innocent — that is, those who have no information to provide and who have nothing to do with what they are accused of doing. The innocent, in fact, have the potential of being the most brutally tortured simply because they’re not able to provide their torturers with the information they’re seeking and, therefore, bring the torture to a stop.
What happens when an innocent person is tortured? The answer is that he gets tortured some more. And he continues to be tortured indefinitely into the future until the torturers finally conclude, if ever, that he really is innocent. The reason is obvious: the torturers, convinced that the victim is lying, continue torturing him indefinitely until they get the information they’re seeking, which obviously is never.
A good example of this aspect of torture involved Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was changing planes at Dulles Airport as he was returning to his home country of Canada. The CIA took a hold of him and, mistakenly convinced that he was terrorist, proceeded to interrogate him. When Arar’s answers weren’t satisfactory, the CIA proceeded to forcibly rendition him to Syria (yes, Syria!), one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, for the purpose of torturing him to provide information that the CIA was seeking.
We still don’t know how the torture deal came into existence, what its terms were, who the negotiators were, or whether President Bush signed off on the deal. The government has steadfastly kept such things secret, and neither the mainstream press nor the Congress has ever demanded answers or explanations.
What we do know is that Arar was kept in Syria for almost a year, during which time he was brutally tortured by Syrian torturers.
Why not just a week of torture? Or just a month? Why not just six months? Why a full year of torture?
There can be only one answer: Despite the brutal torture being inflicted on Arar by the Syrian goons, the CIA was convinced that he was still holding out — that with more torture, Arar would finally confess and provide the information that the CIA was seeking.
It had to be that the Syrian torturers were in constant contact with the CIA and informing them of the results of the torture. After all, that was purpose of sending him to Syria — to torture him into confessing and providing information, given that the CIA had failed to do so with its interrogation at Dulles Airport.
After a year of brutal torture, the Syrians must have grown weary of the entire, sordid episode because they finally released Arar without having secured the confession or information sought by the CIA.
Upon his return to Canada, the Canadian government, after an official investigation, adjudged Arar innocent of the charges, apologized for its role in the affair, and even provided him with a financial settlement for what had been done to him.
To this day, however, the U.S. national-security state is still convinced that Arar is guilty. If it had been up to U.S. officials, Arar would undoubtedly still be in a Syrian jail being tortured into providing the confession and information that the CIA is still convinced he’s withholding.
Of course, torture proponents would undoubtedly say, “Well, that’s just too bad. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
But that mindset flies in the face of our American heritage. The possibility of punishing an innocent person was considered so abhorrent to our ancestors that they did their best to ensure that that would rarely happen. That’s what the presumption of innocence, trial by jury, and due process of law are all about. That’s what the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eight Amendments to the Constitution are all about. Indeed, let’s not forget that our ancestors even included in the Bill of Rights a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments being inflicted on people, including even those who had been adjudged guilty.
Our ancestors understood that government officials make mistakes — that they sometimes accuse people of crimes who are actually innocent. Even today, when federal prosecutors accuse people in federal court of crimes, including the federal crime of terrorism, juries sometimes return with verdicts of acquittal. Imagine if the government had exercised its post-9/11 option to threat those acquitted people as enemy combatants in the war on terrorism and had proceeded to brutally torture them into confessing or providing information.
To ensure that those people didn’t get wrongfully punished, our ancestors placed all sorts of barriers and obstructions the government would have to overcome before punishing the person it was accusing. Our ancestors realized that these obstacles and barriers would mean that many people who had committed crimes would go free. But they were willing to pay that price because the thought of wrongfully punishing a person who was innocent was so abhorrent to them.
It’s time for Americans to take a close look at what the adoption of the national-security state — including the vast military-industrial complex, the enormous standing army, the overseas military bases, the CIA, and the NSA — has done to us as a people. It has stultified the consciences of the American people. It has denigrated our heritage as a free people. It has embraced policies that characterize brutal dictatorships. It has made us less safe and less free. It has sullied our reputation among the people of the world. It has sent us hurtling toward financial bankruptcy. And it has corrupted the most prized constitutional system in history. It’s time to consign it — and the torture it has brought our nation — to the dustbin of history.
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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