Take No Prisoners

The American Torture Defense: Nuanced or Nonsense?

I have seen two separate defenses of torture from U.S. officials, media and pundits. I call these the Jack Bower defense and, since he gave it a few days ago, the Barrack Obama defense.

Jack Bower Defense

The Bower Defense goes like this: ‘If you’ve got a nuclear bomb about to go off, and the only way to find out where it is is to torture a terrorist, fuck him!’

This is nonsense. First, Torture is not effective. You’d have better luck getting the terrorist asylum, a steak and a blow job and then asking him nicely. Second, he’s not a terrorist. He’s some dude that’s been ACCUSED of terorism. In “free” countries, people are innocent until proven guilty. Third, rights don’t go away whenever they’re logistically inconvenient. That is precisely the evil our grandfathers and great grandfathers fought to protect in the last war that was actually justifiable in any sensible way, World War II.

This defense is based on a utilitarian system of ethics, where the motto is ‘do the least harm.’ In a rights-based system, which is what all western democracies have embraced, an individual right to freedom from torture is not contingent upon consequences. It doesn’t matter what’s at stake, torture is off the table. [Note: I don’t actually support either utilitarian or rights-based ethics, but that’s not relevant here.]

Obama Defense

The much more nuanced ‘Obama Defense’ goes something like this. Dick Cheney and his CIA associates went to the Justice Department with a list of interrogation techniques and asked for a professional opinion as to whether they were torture. The DOJ gave the wrong opinion, so Cheney and the CIA approved torture, and ordered it’s use. Officers then tortured individuals. You can then argue that the officers who actually did the torture are not guilty because they were just following orders. The people who gave the orders are not guilty because they did not intend to torture – the justice department said it wasn’t torture, after all. Finally, the DOJ guys aren’t guilty because they just gave an opinion – they did not have any contact with the prisoners.

Nuanced? Yes. Bullshit? Also yes.

Torture is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a male or female person…”. Unless the DOJ is composed of team of doctors, nurses, surgeons, psychologists, psychiatrists and other medical professionals, it is not qualified to determine whether or not a particular technique or combination of techniques constitutes torture. Hint: the DOJ is a bunch of lawyers! Thus, they gave a professional opinion for which they were obviously unqualified that resulted in a serious crime. They are professionally negligent in this regard, hence GUILTY.

Cheney and the CIA administration knew goddamn well they were going to inflict severe pain and suffering. They didn’t go to the DOJ to find out, they needed to cover their asses. Furthermore, they should have known that only medical professionals, not lawyers, could judge pain and suffering. Moreover, common fucking sense should have told them that they were going to far when prisoners started dying. Hence, GUILTY.

Lastly, the individuals actually doing the torturing can argue that they were told the techniques were approved; therefore, they didn’t think it was torture. Again, when the prisoners began screaming in pain and begging for their lives, common sense would dictate they were going too far. Furthermore, we’ve seen the “we were only following orders,” defense before. It’s called the Nuremberg defense. You see, near the end of WW2, the Allies figured these slippery Nazi bastards would claim that they were just following orders. So they got together and proclaimed explicitly that “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”. Since WW2, the Uniform Code of Military Justice has been updated to reflect this – it now states that a soldier may refuse an unlawful order. In fairness, a soldier refusing an order, while under enemy fire in the middle of a battle might get shot by his CO, but CIA interrogators were not under fire and had plenty of time to resign. Soldiers are supposed to be men and women of honor. A man of honor would not try to beat information our of a helpless prisoner who’s had never even been charged with a crime, let alone tried and convicted. The CIA torturers are not innocent bystanders who honestly believed they weren’t hurting the prisoners. They are sadists or cowards.


It’s time to call this situation what it is – institutionalized racism. The American public and the Obama administration are not going to prosecute because these victims wear beards and turbans. If the CIA secret prisons were full of white christians, everyone would be losing their minds about this. If the CIA secret prisons were full of black men and women, Kenyans perhaps, there would be riots in the streets. As it is, the Bush administration has incited a hate-shift from blacks and hispanics to muslims (and gays, but that’s another issue). Don’t believe me? Let’s contrast a the 16-year-old black pirate who was taken prisoner after the whole somali pirate standoff, and the 14-year-old arab kid who was picked up in afghanistan, with no apparent evidence of wrongdoing. The black kid will be tried in New York. The arab kid has been in Gitmo for 7 years, despite 1) there being so little evidence against him that the man hired to prosecute him is now his defense lawyer 2) having never been tried or even charged with a crime, and 3) having a federal judge order his release. But he’s still there!

This isn’t just hypocrisy. It’s racism. It is the use of hate as a political weapon.