This piece was published on Huffington Post. To see it there, go here. If you like it Buzz me up.
The human rights abuse in torture is inherent and obvious, but its implications to our society are ultimately worse. In the context of terror, when our country tortures those accused of terrorist crimes, we create a climate where others sympathize with the torture victim, taking the focus away from the victims of the terrorist act. Whether the tortured committed the crime or not becomes secondary to the sympathy felt for the torture victim. In addition, the fact alone that someone was tortured, even if the confession is coincidentally true, harms any reputation we have of democracy or rule of law and motivates others to retaliation. Worse, torture confounds the state’s ability to prosecute those who have harmed it. If we end up freeing someone because they confessed to a crime under torture, it is possible we are allowing someone guilty, someone who genuinely sought to harm us, to go free. If we prosecute them based on the elicited confessions, we could be punishing the innocent. We never really know the truth. In the end, torture makes the original crime against us secondary.
I followed the Daniel Pearl case, then I watched the movie of his wife’s story, A Mighty Heart. It was brilliantly done. The filmmakers managed to capture the complexity of the various agencies, organizations, and governments working to find Daniel Pearl. After Pearl’s death, several people were arrested and one man, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, has been sentenced to death, although with his multiple appeals, it is questionable whether he will ever suffer his sentence. One aspect of his appeals has been the confession by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the actual killings. Seems a reasonable explanation.
Except what is true? Did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed really kill Daniel Pearl? How could we ever know considering we now have the torture memos released by the CIA detailing the atrocities against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others, including his being waterboarded 183 times in one month (see story here). It leaves me wondering whether he really committed any of the crimes and whether his confessions were valid. Maybe he did it. Maybe he didn’t. We can’t know because the confessions were tortured out of him.
Daniel Pearl’s murder wasn’t the only crime to which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed. He also apparently oversaw the 9/11 attacks, the shoe bomb attack, the Bali nightclub attack, the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, as well as others. His under-torture confessions to such a long list of infamous crimes make the likelihood seem even more dubious. Yet the possibility is there–it is the torture that causes interference. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s case is a brilliant example of the dangers of torture to a free and just society. Not only does it call into question just how free and just we really are, it leaves us wondering who really did what. We can’t trust anyone, least of all ourselves.
I have heard the primary arguments on both sides regarding whether or not to convict the agents and members of the Bush administration responsible for carrying out the torture. All of these arguments have centered on whether the actions were justified, as well as on the repugnance of the acts themselves. I would argue we need to take the discussion a step further. While torture clearly constitutes human rights abuse, I would argue that it is also a form of treason.
In the United States, treason is the giving of aid and comfort to our enemies. If torture keeps us from fully prosecuting those enemies, then the torturers themselves are in conspiracy with them, thereby giving them aid and comfort. Torture policies as a whole put our entire country in jeopardy. It is a form of disloyalty to us inasmuch as we are left even more unsafe, not only from those who would harm us, but also from our inability to discover the truth and prosecute the criminals. It creates a disintegration of our most fundamental values. If a person actually commits an act of terror and is then tortured to extract a confession, his guilt will be questioned because of the torture and he may be allowed free. This person is then free to terrorize us again, but this time he is likely angrier because of the torture he has suffered, leaving us in even greater danger. Torture, those who ordered it and those who carried it out, caused this. Allowing torture as an accepted policy of the United States and our failure to prosecute those responsible for it renders our democracy and our rule of law meaningless.