THE RELATIVITY OF TORTURE
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
May 25, 2009
BRADENTON, Fla., May 25, 2009 -- As the rancor and noise about torture and the present furor over President Barack Obama's concept of "preventive detention" have grown, I've been forced by simple honesty to look at these two things in a larger context. What I see troubles me.
America is at war. Our enemies are implacable. There is no such thing as peace talks, no talks even about what peace might constitute. By the very weight of our world, we have been bent low to see what can possibly become of more war. We watch al-Qaeda suicide bombings in Irag, an Israeli carpet bombing in Gaza, Iran's ugly and hostile lies about the Jews, the Taliban's steady advance upon Pakistan's nationhood, Afghanistan's long dance with chaos, global economic insecurity, the destruction of personal freedom … does it look like it will end well, or soon?
Does it look like we can be more observant of the ideals of the Geneva Convention than we are of the world around us, and still survive? As someone did at Guantánamo, can we subject a prisoner with a severe phobia to the presence in his cell of a feared caterpillar to prod him to talk about planned acts of terrorism?
Say that one person knew that Mohammad Atta would strike a huge building somewhere in the US sometime after Aug. 11, 2001, and cause massive destruction. Had they arrested that person for "preventive detention," and had he surrendered his information under the force of waterboarding, saving a trillion dollars and perhaps 400,000 lives, would the ethical lapse have been justified? That is what we ultimately must ask when we begin the debate about torture in Guantánamo and preventive detention.
Or, even if good evidence exists that a man is privy to plans to undertake terrorist acts, must we let him do so before we arrest him? That is not the standard we hold to for common criminals. A person believed ready and armed to kill a neighbor can be forcibly held and prevented from doing so. But can we hold a terrorist that fully intends to destroy American lives if he can, and has the knowledge and skills needed to do so? That seems to be the simple thrust of this unnecessarily complex argument.
Recently, we've followed the reports of abuse in Ireland's Catholic "reform" schools. Years and years of unrelenting torture occurred there. Had those same abuses been heaped upon the arrested terrorists, criminal trials against the perpetrators would result.
It's clear those children suffered much more than the terrorists in Guantánamo have. Thousands upon thousands were tortured for decades, all of them far more cruelly than al-Qaeda terrorists are in terrorist prisons under our control, like Guantánamo. It is the relative morality of each process that concerns me.
Answer this, then: If there is real torture in the world, is putting a caterpillar in the cell of a man afraid of caterpillars the moral equivalent of beating a child with a metal-studded leather belt 100 times? Is all suffering equal? Or does some suffering pale beside other suffering?
Look how easily the children in Ireland got off when compared to children in Rwanda, forced to watch their parents murdered, their brothers and sisters raped, and themselves become the very rapists and killers they feared after being forcibly inducted into military groups - groups that commonly hacked people's ankle tendons to cripple them?
You cannot say that all suffering is the same. And I truly wonder if you can say someone was tortured by sleeplessness, loud music, offensive sexual displays and even waterboarding when so many have suffered so much more - the Jews of the Holocaust, the Irish of the Famine, the Armenians of their genocide, the Muslims of India's 1947 breakup, the Russians of the Stalin purges.
Yet these terrorists have aroused the world's sympathy as none of those others have. So it is not the suffering they endure, but the context and the author of it, and most of all the related politics, at the center of the debate.
Islamic extremists would gladly take a woman's head off for being unfaithful, or even being alone in the company of unmarried men, and yet - well, if people who hold and act upon such beliefs are forced to endure a caterpillar in their cell, or days without sleep, or a used menstrual pad, the clamor that arises is deafening.
If we reject moral relativism, and believe all suffering is the same, we also reject the actual consequences of real fear and torture, which are far more prevalent and powerful. As liberals, we will not let ourselves see the difference.
We endanger other Americans by forgoing the use of methods that can extract the information we need to stop terror. Do we compromise our Constitution? We do, but perhaps not unforgivably. The Preamble is not considered a legal basis for arguments in court, but it does compel us to "provide for the common defense."
That phrase has a rich history and a common interpretation - that we need an army - and it can have an immediate one. We can't use truth serum because it is invasive, often not reliable and sometimes damages brains we are relying upon for answers, and we can't rely on lie detectors, because they too often can be fooled. We surely must not stoop as low as the terrorists and dictators do, either.
But history will forgive us, I think, if we use a caterpillar to get the truth.