Torture: A Conservative Defense of Bush/Cheney


W.J. Astore

About seven years ago, I had an impassioned debate with a conservative friend about whether the U.S. had engaged in torture and, if we had, whether it had been effective.  My position was clear: we had engaged in torture, and it was both wrong and counterproductive.  My friend was unconvinced.  His arguments, which I detail below, provide a contrary perspective on the issue of torture as well as insight into the rationale of those who supported Dick Cheney’s unapologetic stance on torture.

(My friend is now deceased.  I don’t believe he would object to having his views outlined here, but I do believe he would wish to remain anonymous.  I have edited his comments for clarity, putting them in the form of a list.)

1.  Torture. The very word makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. Yet we have yet to come to anywhere near an agreement on exactly what the word means. To some it is hot irons, the rack, and beatings. At the other end are those who maintain the act of keeping prisoners at a facility like Gitmo, or indeed at any facility, is in of itself a form of torture.

I am not in favor of categorically using physical means to obtain intelligence from captives. From the tone of the [White House] memos [on torture], and from what I have read of the views of those in both the White House and the Pentagon, no one there was in favor of that approach either.  That is clearly not in the best interests of anyone. At the same time, it is folly to advertise [to the enemy] exactly what we will and will not do.

Clearly, from the very fact that the memos exist at all, and that questions were asked requiring legal answers, this subject was not approached in a cavalier fashion by anyone [in the Bush Administration].

It was St. Augustine who first offered the admonition that you may not do evil that good might come of it.  But he also said that it is at time permissible to tolerate a lesser evil to prevent a great evil.

2.  Waterboarding did yield results that stopped an attack on US soil. I believe that Cheney is correct in asking that further memos be released that either prove or disprove that point. I also believe that these episodes of waterboarding are being presented [by the media] out of context and without perspective.  In sum, if waterboarding resulted in obtaining info that did indeed foil an operation against the U.S., then I see no problem with having used it.

3.  The Geneva Conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war] do not apply here. Terrorists are not soldiers of any state.  They do not wear uniforms.  We have a new paradigm to which we must adjust, both in the pure military sense, as well as the way we deal with those we capture.

Are such men to be treated as soldiers?  Are they to be treated as criminals?  Are we to extend such niceties as the Geneva conventions to those who would offer the exact opposite to those who would come under their control?

If we treat all captives as if they were soldiers, under Geneva Convention rules, that would create some problems, and would also effectively end the conversation. There would be no interrogations. On the other hand, if we treat this as a war, and all captives as POWs, then we are well within our rights to keep those same persons under confinement until the war ends.

If we treat these captives as criminals, we have other problems. First, and this may sound silly, but I doubt that they were read their Miranda rights as they were taken prisoner. But if they are to be treated as criminals, then other rules apply as well, and one of those rules is the right for authorities to question them.

As it stands now, how you treat terrorists is open to debate. They are clearly not soldiers. They are also not actually criminals either.

4.  The nature of the enemy: What we have now is a very different paradigm. These are not State actors. There is no fear on their part of betraying their “State,” or of facing consequences relating to betraying the State. There is no “State” in the first place.  These are Islamo-fascist terrorists, who have no state, only a religious conviction from which they draw their motivation.

We also know that they view cooperation and diplomacy and forbearance as weakness.

We know how totalitarian thugs act and react. We know what drives them, and we know what stops them.  We have had ample experience over the centuries.

5.  Abu Ghraib in Iraq, while deplorable, also did not represent an attempt to garner intelligence. And its commander was sacked.  I take exception to any comparisons with such places as the Hanoi Hilton [in North Vietnam]. The objective there was not information, but rather confession.

And what do we do to detainees who, after being treated as “guests,” respond by throwing feces and attempting to assault US guards?  Is no physical response to be permitted at all?

6.  This media focus, some would say obsession, with torture is more about attacking the Bush Administration than it is about protecting the rights of prisoners.

7.  While I have concerns about the prisoners who are the recipients of torture and abuse, I also worry about those on the other side. The act of abusing another human being is not healthy, and leads to many psychological problems. I worry about the effect any of this activity will have on our own people.

8.  The validity of information obtained under torture is always suspect. But we come back then to the very definition of torture. Is the stress of being questioned in of itself a form of torture?  And again, we are not talking about soliciting confessions; we are talking about obtaining and confirming information, from various persons and from different sources. If we decide that we cannot in any way, shape, or form question captives, then we might as well just treat them as we would soldiers. And that would mean keeping them locked up for a very long time.”

If I were to summarize my friend’s views, I’d say he believed that torture was regrettable but necessary to keep America safe, that those who were making a big deal about it were motivated by animus against the Bush Administration, and that those who objected to torture in principle didn’t realize the nature of the enemy, i.e. “Islamo-fascist thugs” who had to be “stopped,” even at the cost of committing lesser evils (torture) to prevent greater evils (attacks on innocent Americans).

And I’d say his views, politicized and biased as they were, were and are widely held in America, which is exactly why the Obama Administration chose not to prosecute anyone for the crime of torture.  “We tortured some folks,” as Obama memorably said, but let’s look forward, not backward.  So, in essence, Obama pretty much agrees with my conservative friend.

Update: Another thought: this debate over torture is much like the current debate over the renewal of The Patriot Act. The Obama Administration is trotting out the usual suspects to argue that, to defend ourselves from Islamo-fascist thugs, we must reauthorize the Patriot Act and consent to unlimited surveillance.

It’s yet another version of “we had to destroy the village to save it.”  In this case, it’s “we must empower authoritarian and secretive governmental agencies to preserve democracy and freedom in America.”  Good luck with that!

7 thoughts on “Torture: A Conservative Defense of Bush/Cheney

  1. How easily your conservative friend glides right over the initial violation of all international norms of civilized behavior! He states as an unquestionable fact that these detainees are “terrorists.” Let us not fall into such a trap. Let us recall that many (perhaps most?) were snatched from foreign soil (there’s a legal term for this: kidnapping) because some informer, who remains forever nameless/faceless, fingered them as “bad guys.” Very possibly to settle a personal grudge. Next there’s the little legal matter of being charged with a specific crime and brought to trial with some actual, incontrovertible evidence! Oh, but I guess we shouldn’t worry about such things (what am I, a “bleeding heart liberal”?), because the USA is “exceptional” and “we’re the good guys.” I’m sure Dr. Goebbels defended Nazi behavior on just such a basis. But your conservative friend, Mr. Astore, and his ilk say that these detainees have no rights whatsoever where the US Constitution is concerned. (And guess what? We, the actual citizens of this country are fast approaching the same status!) And even if we were to grant them POW status, the perverted thread of argument continues, they can still be detained without trial forever because the “War On Terror” is slated to last forever!

    Speaking of Goebbels, Hannah Arendt pointed out in “Eichmann In Jerusalem” that the internal logic of Nazism was simply that the Reich cannot commit a crime; any order it issues is legal and must be carried out. I see no real difference between that “logic” and that of your conservative friend. Please spare us future regurgitations of Dick Cheney-speak!!

  2. I believe torture is always wrong. “Islamo-fascist thugs”? Some might call the American torturers the “American-fascist thugs.” It is a known fact that we tortured people who were rounded up and were totally innocent. Does wearing a uniform make a difference? Do resistance fighters in any conflict wear uniforms? In their respective countries they are called “patriots.” We imprisoned and tortured innocent people at Guantanamo. Obama is wrong on not investigating torture, on sitting on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on Torture, saying we need not look back and “let’s look forward.” Those who approved the policy of torture should be punished, those who took this country to war with Iraq, and are responsible for the death of thousands of Americans, the severe injuries of our soldiers, the daily suicides of many others, the total destruction of Iraq, the millions of Iraqi refugees, and the chaos and war without end that resulted in the Middle East, should be tried for crimes against humanity, starting with President Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and co. If we do not look back and investigate our actions, we do not learn form our mistakes. If we do not apologize for our mistakes to the world community, we invite contempt for our government. I am grateful to those public servants who resigned from various positions of authority as a matter of principle, during the Iraq war, and to whistleblowers who exposed the truth about torture and other crimes, at great personal sacrifice.

  3. “So, in essence, Obama pretty much agrees with my friend.”

    Agreed. Therefore I suggest that you amend the title of this article to “Torture: A Conservative Defense of Bush/Cheney/Obama/You-Know-Her. That ought to keep your article relevant for the next ten years, at least.

    • Obama banned torture, but did not want to try those who approved it in the first place. He was wrong! I have watched Cheney and Rumsfeld defend “torture” on TV appearances.

  4. During WWII Japan captured and imprisoned US and other Allied Forces soldiers and subjected them to waterboarding, brutal beatings, suspension off the ground for lengthy periods of time with ropes or wire attached to limbs or digits, applied electric shock to genitals or elsewhere resulting in unconsciousness/permanent debilitation/death, confined prisoners in tiny airless boxes laden with filth and feces, withheld water and rations which damaged health and sometimes resulted in death, and indiscriminately executed Allied prisoners, justifying these actions because those prisoners may have possessed military intelligence vital to the security and defense of the Japanese homeland, and because those soldiers were captured enemies entitled to no human rights (Japan was not signatory to the 1929 Geneva Accords).

    The USA did sign those accords, as well as later treaties which prohibit inhumane treatment of captives. At the close of WWII, France/GB/USSR/USA prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, and an accord of nations engaged in the Pacific war theater prosecuted Japanese war criminals using the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE). Stiff sentences, including execution, were administered for acts including those in my first paragraph.

    But as Barbara Myers wrote in yesterday’s tomdispatch feature, America did not honor these agreements in WWII, and under CIA auspices has employed and indeed scientifically refined torture as tactic, art, and grotesque habit — for lack of a better way to comprehend their policies — since it was formed following that war. It has tortured and murdered tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of captured and confined individuals since then and continues to do so today, tacitly if not publicly endorsed as American policy by the Administrations and Congresses which for over 6 decades have refused to bring about an end to it.

    People who agree with all or most of the things said in the list in the topic post are almost impossible to reason with, at least in my experience.

    They are nearly hopelessly deluded due to cognitive dissonance, for openers, and the motivated reasoning necessary to maintain that dissonant remove from reality only increases when they are confronted with contrary evidence/opinion. Their viewpoint is shaped by the doctrine implemented immediately following nine-eleven, the post-WWII doctrine of American supremacy held by neo-con and neo-lib both. Doctrine elevated above empirical test, doctrine it is heretical to question or doubt.

    Any of those who accept the observations and claims found on that list would be aghast and deeply offended if they were compared to those Japanese who were convicted of war crimes for their treatment of American soldiers, even though treatment of captured Pacific Theater WWII US servicemen is virtually indistinguishable from treatment accorded by US military/agents to captured North Vietnamese NLF, or to those confined at Abu Ghraib or Gitmo or various dark sites, or handed by the US government over to states who do not deny the use of torture as sanctioned policy.

    To borrow from Euthyphro: is a thing right because the authority source one elects to place faith in says the thing is right, or is the thing right because it can be demonstrated that it is inherently so? If a thing is defined as torture, e.g. waterboarding when America and its allies prosecute Japan for war crimes, how then does the thing become not a crime when America chooses to utilize it for its purposes?

    What does that list say about the core values held by the individual who adheres to its contents?

    • “…is a thing right because the authority source one elects to place faith in says the thing is right…?” This is precisely what I was pointing out about Nazi Germany. In that type regime, of course, only the “true believers” actually placed faith in Nazi ideology. Doubtless many Germans, in private, hung their heads and moaned “My God, what has become of my country?” But to express such feelings in public, of course, would lead to a different version of “hung.” Our society has not descended to that kind of regime………..yet!

    • Core values? That would require a principled “core”. Principled cores don’t develop when people seek the comforts of groupthink & self-serving confirmation. People eat up the simplicity of Arabs with knives vs. All that is Right! Islamo-fascism indeed!
      By the way, the supposed hijackers were known, were handled, and patsied.

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