You would think that after the scandal at Abu Ghraib and the reaction to the administration's memos basically approving torture, or redefining it, or saying that no-one could be prosecuted, or that Bush wasn't subject to the Geneva Conventions - you would think, after all of that came to light, that the administration would have learned by now that we do have both a moral and a legal responsibility to follow the Geneva Conventions and other laws that ban torture, deportation to countries that torture, ghost detainees, and the like.
You'd be wrong.
The latest news that the Bush team has again identified a scenario in which the Geneva Conventions don't apply is for me the crowning example of this administration's hubris and disrespect for the public. The administration has made public its position that the Conventions don't apply to non-Iraqi 'suspected' terrorists captured (or rather detained) in Iraq. The status of a prisoner and the decision about whether or not they are covered by the Conventions, will be made by "American government agencies who held the individuals in their custody", based on the individual's nationality, affiliation with terrorist organizations and activities inside Iraq. (I'll post later on the details of this information, originally brought to light by the Washington Post. But right now, I want to talk about this affinity for torture that this administration seems to have.)
What possible reason is there for declaring the Geneva Conventions non-applicable except to permit our troops, our intelligence officers, in our name, to torture these people. I fundamentally believe that it is immoral to do so. I believe that we sacrifice a piece of our nation's soul when we make it our policy to adopt or condone torture. I think we ask too much of our troops when we ask them to witness, condone, or even take part in the inhumane treatment of human beings, no matter how bad those bad guys are. I think we put our troops at risk in every war to come when we disregard international treaties banning torture, that we're inviting our enemies to do the same. I think it's unforgivable.
Okay. Now that the moral question is out of the way, let's get practical. There are many who say that in a time of war, extreme actions are called for and permissable. Those same people promote the idea that it's perfectly appropriate to torture terrorists. I disagree for three reasons.
The first reason comes down to the risk that we're torturing innocents, or common criminals. The first question we must ask when we hear that we're embracing torture, is who are we torturing. I'm told it's foreign fighters in Iraq, terrorists. But is this true? We've recently learned that the Iraqi detainee wired up and threatened with death if he fell off a box was in Abu Ghraib for stealing a car, so my confidence is pretty low that we'll be separating the real bad guys from the common criminals or those who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And since the guy in charge of all prisons in Iraq was the one who first suggested "Gitmo-izing" those prisons, who introduced the idea of merging intelligence and MPs in the prisons against all policy and doctrine, who oversaw Gitmo and the abuse there, my confidence in the quality of these prisons and high standards for detainee identification is quite low. So the justification that it's just terrorists we're torturing doesn't fly for me. We don't have a convincing track record.
My second reason for opposing torture on a practical basis is that I don't believe we can support the argument that it saves American lives. This is the justification I hear the most - torture saves American lives. The problem is that experts say torture is one of the least effective means of extracting reliable and actionable information. We get unreliable information, we're told what the torture victims think we want to hear. What information are we missing because we're not adopting other methods of interrogation that experts in our own military and intelligence operations say are more effective? How many lives are risked because we don't have that information? We really don't know. The argument that torture saves Americans may sound good, but it's an opinion not based on facts. And that's not enough to embrace the inhumane.
My third and final reason for rejecting torture on a practical as opposed to moral basis is that it puts oru troops at risk. How many American lives are we risking in this and future conflicts by telling the world that the Geneva Conventions are applicable situationally, by dictate of the warring parties' leaders? Our own Justice Department has stated that "No matter what the provision is in the Geneva Convention, they are subject to legal interpretation." I'm quite sure that our enemies will be happy to adopt the same position, that if we engage in a pre-emptive war they'll be happy to apply their own interpretation, to say the Conventions don't apply because the war is illegal, that we are enemy combatants or foreign fighters, that any and all civilian casualties are proof of aggression against the people instead of the military. They will announce that the Geneva Conventions don't apply and quote our own government leaders in support of their position. Then they'll torture our troops.
NYT article, U.S. Action Bars Right of Some Captured in Iraq, 10/26/04