Torture By Any Other Name is Just Revenge

Torture has no justification. There is not, nor ever will be, a reason to torture someone. All the rationalizations are hogwash. Torture has one, singular motivator: revenge.

Revenge is a part of our mythos. Cultures throughout the ages have envisioned angry gods exacting revenge upon indolent citizens, or even each other. We follow in their footsteps. Theater and opera are rife with revenge. We love movies where the hero, or antihero, slams the bad guys. It’s not enough that the bad guy gets captured, he has to be made to suffer. On TV shows, in movies, or in simulation on video games, revenge torture is everywhere.

As part of our storytelling tradition, revenge is all well and good. But it’s quite another thing to practice barbarism in real life on real people. In the years following 9/11, we have asphyxiated ourselves with the desire for revenge, clouding reason, tainting judgement, choking our humanity.

Numerous reports, including the recent one put out by the Senate Intelligence Committee, have shown that torture does not lead to “actionable intelligence.” It often leads to gibberish. When you’re being hurt, you say what you think your torturers want to hear so that they’ll stop hurting you. Even the Vietcong realized that torture served no purpose and that it did more harm than good. Those who insist that one can gain useful information via torture have been watching too many episodes of “24.”

We dress up torture with urgency, the mythic “ticking time bomb” scenario. We cloak it in euphemisms (“enhanced interrogation techniques”). But it is simply revenge, a quality it shares, in my opinion, with the death penalty. There are ways to stop criminals without killing them. You throw them in jail forever. Similarly, there are ways to stop evil-doers from doing evil: acting upon good intelligence gathered in the traditional way (i.e., without torturing someone for it) to identify, capture, and prosecute them. The Bush Administration often touted that they kept America safe following 9/11. Maybe. Before 9/11, though, they were asleep at the wheel. They failed to act upon the intelligence available to them.

Investigating, following up on leads, none of that has the same visceral satisfaction as Jack Bauer slapping, slamming, or shooting confessions out of someone. Again, fine for fiction, not so much for real life. In the real world, our torturing people has real consequences.

And now it’s time to pay the piper. With the Senate Intelligence Committee’s damning report, confirming all the worst fears of what the CIA did during the Bush Administration, the US has lost its moral standing for a generation. We cannot look other nations in the eye and say “don’t do that,” because we did it. We can call it whatever we want and we can justify it anyway we like, but we did it. It was base and it was cruel. And it yielded nothing, making it, for all its gross flaws, unnecessary. Dick Cheney claims torture led to the capture of Osama Bin-Laden. The Senate reports states otherwise.

Torture is evil. Yet it is the quick and easy refuge of the weak. Because our political class is rife with weakness these days, I fear that we will one day torture again.

© 2014, gar. All rights reserved.


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