America’s Difficult Torture Journey

Conor FriedersdorfWhen I was growing up, Americans thought of torture as a tactic used by history’s villains. A brutal dictator might keep a depraved regime in power with torture. People in foreign countries might suffer inside torture chambers. But US policy reflected the will of the citizenry, not the sadism of an evil-doer. Even folks who knew that the US had tortured in the past never imagined it would do so again.

After al-Qaeda murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, our polity didn’t exactly embrace torture. But attitudes in the US shifted. The absolutist taboo against torture gave way to a consequentialist debate. Nearly everyone continued to avow that torture was morally unacceptable in almost all circumstances. On the other hand, say a ticking time bomb would incinerate New York City and a terrorist knew the code to stop it. Would it be morally permissible to torture the terrorist?

Over many months, Americans debated that question.

On Sunday, Dick Cheney gave an interview that illustrated why it was so imprudent to abandon the taboo against torture and indulge in implausible hypotheticals. 13 years ago, Americans were arguing over whether it should be legal to torture a known terrorist if we knew it could stop a mass casualty attack on a major city. Now a former vice-president is defending the torture of innocent people

Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the US Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?

If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.

That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn’t want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn’t want us to abide by the Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take al-Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.

Now that Cheney is stating all this explicitly it must be rejected as moral madness. Torture was the ticking time bomb. It exploded. And a city on a hill was destroyed. I hope it is rebuilt in time for my unborn children to grow up in a place that abhors torture, regarding it as a dark curiosity perpetrated by history’s villains.

We’ve got a long way to go.

—Conor Friedersdorf
Dick Cheney Defends the Torture of Innocents


2 thoughts on “America’s Difficult Torture Journey

  1. Well, by the standards of TV/movie crime dramas, Dick Cheney is basically just a serial killer. “I’ll do it again unless someone can stop me!” (By my standards, too, but most people would find my standards too high and are comfortable with the standards expressed in popular drama.)

    At least (small comfort!) this has served to stop letting Americans off the know-nothing hook when it comes to torture. Few Americans are aware of our support for (or outright puppet governance of) horrid governments in the past (or now.) Maybe being aware that we’ve done it ourselves will make it possible to challenge our government’s support for torturous regimes in the future. Probably not, but that’s at least trying to be optimistic.

    • Too optimistic, I’m afraid; but I support the effort! What it’s really shown, I think, is that a large chunk of Americans only supported non-torture because it was American policy. The moment American policy became pro-torture, they were fine with that too. The issue is America, not torture. It’s sad. But people like Friedersdorf (and me and probably you) were naive to ever think it otherwise.

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