The revelations about the use of torture as an interrogation “technique” have churned many stomachs in the last two weeks. We knew it was bad. We knew it was reprehensible. Now we know more.
Astonishingly, there is still “debate” about the “effectiveness” of torture. Torture’s presumed benefits are altogether beside the point, which is that torture is illegal and morally reprehensible in the extreme.
There are those who claim that the call for investigations and prosecutions is “liberals pushing for retribution.” A vindictive desire for retribution (among other things) was what led to torture. This is not a question of policy differences, as—incredibly—some claim. Rather, it is a question of justice and the restoration of the Rule of Law.
As Ali Soufan said in the New York Times on Wednesday, “This should not be a partisan matter, because it is in our national security interest to regain our position as the world’s foremost defenders of human rights.” And as others have said, it is not a question of right vs. left but of right vs. wrong. In his column today, Paul Krugman wrote, “Never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. 'This government does not torture people,' declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it."
The United States is a very, very powerful nation. We have the responsibility to use that power wisely, not only for the good of our own people but also for the good of the world and the planet. The use of torture is a horrendous abuse of that power. At our best we have been a defender of human rights, and here we are blatantly violating human rights in one of the most atrocious ways imaginable. We have lost our moral footing and any moral authority we may once have had. We as a nation cannot ever defend human rights with any credibility until we fix this. If we do not pursue justice—however politically inconvenient that pursuit may be—we have no hope of regaining whatever moral standing we once had.
We have all been debased by the sanctioning of torture, but none more so than those who had to work in the environments where it was practiced. Kayla Williams, a sergeant in a military intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division, poignantly asks, What does the act of torture do to those who commit it?
Williams cites the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which participants were randomly assigned roles as prisoners and guards. What we learned from that unhappy experiment is that human beings are profoundly susceptible to an environment in which the powerful abuse the powerless. In a 2004 editorial, after the initial release of photos of tortured detainees in Abu Ghraib, Philip G. Zimbardo, author of the Stanford Prison Experiment, queried, “Should these few Army reservists be blamed as the ‘bad apples’ in a good barrel of American soldiers, as our leaders have characterized them? Or are they the once-good apples soured and corrupted by an evil barrel?”
The “once-good apples” may have been the perpetrators of torture, assured by their superior officers that what they were doing was okay, but they are also the victims of those who exposed them to this extraordinary evil. We sent our daughters and sons, sisters and brothers into this morass. They went on our behalf. As scarring as war itself is, the experience of participating in the torture of fellow human beings is much worse.
In 2003, Alyssa Peterson, one of the first female soldiers to die in Iraq, ended her own life a few days after she refused to participate in interrogations involving torture. Kayla Williams, who served with Peterson, reflected: "It [being required to participate in interrogations involving torture] made me think, what are we as humans, that we do this to each other? It made me question my humanity and the humanity of all Americans. It was difficult, and to this day I can no longer think I am a really good person and will do the right thing in the right situation."
Those who serve our country in the military should never be exposed to such anguish and moral torment. Nor should they be further endangered because our enemies, knowing that we torture prisoners, are then that much more likely to torture captured members of the U.S. military.
Those who corrupted the barrel are the ones who should be prosecuted. Those who were forced into that evil barrel deserve our compassion, prayers, and support. Beyond the questions of legality and prosecutions are the questions of how these individuals can recover from the grave evil that befell them in their service to our country, an evil wrought not by our enemies but by our leaders. The first steps in that recovery may well involve investigations and prosecutions of those who corrupted the barrel.