Note: This post is a deviation from my normal topic and expresses a personal political view. I appreciate your indulgence.
I can no longer remain silent. I hope that others abandon their silence and speak loudly on this issue, particularly during this season of renewal.
I have been watching the discussions about the Senate Intelligence Committee with a sense of profound disappointment as the discussions devolved into a debate about whether torture was effective. The premise of the argument is that if torture is effective, it is an acceptable thing to do. As much as I hate the bad guys and despise what they have done and continue to do to my country, I reject the embrace of torture with every ounce of my being.
Torture is antithetical to the United States of America. There is no principled line to be drawn between what our government did and what every single one of us would decry as inhumane torture. If the acts our government performed were performed on American servicemen, many would seek violent retribution against the offenders. If those same acts were committed against American servicewomen, the offense and outcry would be even greater. If another government rationalized the same acts if committed on civilians from our country, still more would be angered to point of demanding war as a response. We all know—everyone one of us—that torture is damnedably wrong when committed against our families or our fellow Americans.
But look at other challenges to the unprincipled nature of the torture performed by our government. Would we feel it was “okay” if the acts were committed on women instead of men who look evil? What about children? Could we torture children if someone believed doing so would save American lives? There is no line to the drawn in the argument the torturer’s use to justify their behavior: whatever it takes to avoid another attack. We can only pray that as a country we have not sunk so low that any means can be justified because some politician self-righteously proclaims that the heinous acts “save American lives.” Those claims are almost always impossible to prove true, but even assuming their truth should never justify the means to that end.
There are arguments that use of torture places Americans at risk in the future, servicemen and servicewomen, contractors and civilians alike. There are arguments that America’s stature in the world has been irreparably damaged by its disgraceful conduct. Those arguments are likely true, but to me, they are irrelevant. Torture is wrong regardless of the outcome and ramifications. It does not become right or wrong because of how other countries respond.
Perhaps not surprisingly, former Vice President Dick Cheney has emerged as the chief supporter of torture as a tactic, arguing that “what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11” was worse. As if that is the benchmark for judging right and wrong. As if being able to claim the high ground in comparison to terrorists is good enough for the United States of America. It is not a standard the America I believe in would use to judge itself. I feel only sadness for amoral world that Cheney has created for himself.
The United States of America is a moral and righteous country. At least we used to be. I hope we aspire to be so again. It is not easy to be moral and righteous: it never has been and it never will be. We have built a country where we do not give in to our basest instincts. We fought a war to say no to slavery because there can never be a time when it is right to own another. We want to stifle the sound of speakers whose speech makes our blood boil. Instead, we embrace the First Amendment. We want to make others believe in the same God we do. Instead, we trust in the wisdom of the free practice of all religions.
The Bible teaches us to turn the other cheek. My father taught me to never throw the first punch and to be first to protect those who cannot protect themselves. I am pretty sure most fathers teach that same lesson to their kids. I never heard of any father teaching their kids to torture the neighborhood bully just to avoid the possibility of a fight. These simple lessons helped guide the country before. Maybe we need to be reminded of them again, that there is a difference between right and wrong. Integrity is not easy. Honor is not easy. Right is not easy. Leading the world is not easy. We do not aspire to these things because they easy. We aspire to them because the world needs a beacon it can count on to decide between right and wrong and not be pulled to one side or the other because of convenience.
I do not consider myself naïve or foolish. In setting a moral and righteous standard, we will be hit and we will suffer. But our principles must demand that we not let this risk of temporary suffering justify the alternative that might makes right, that the ends of protection justify any means, no matter how cruel, deviant or inhumane. Being moral and principled may make us even more of a target, but if that is so, it is a price we have paid before and should be proud to pay again. Our principles will not, indeed cannot, be so easily weakened or defeated. If we were to abandon our principles and morals simply because we are attacked, then we had neither morals nor principles to begin with.
My father’s generation, what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” had its moment. It stood up to Adolf Hitler. A later generation fought for civil rights, a battle that continues. But if it is true that every generation faces a moment where people have to stand up and be counted, to say “this is the line that we cannot cross”, perhaps this is our moment, or maybe it is just mine. My line is America does not torture people. Ever.