These are not hypothetical questions: Would you smash a man’s head into a wall? Would you threaten his wife? Would you threaten to drill holes in him? Would you rape him with a hose? Would you, personally, with your hands, take these actions? Would you use your hands to break him? Would you do this with a cold head, as your job?
If you would not take these actions, would you hire someone to do them for you?
If you will neither torture nor hire another to do it for you, will you support those who defend torture?
The questions must be made personal. If we evade the questions, we are cowards.
Torture is wrong, a barbarism, an exhibition of mere vengeance, an absolute evil and thus a despoiler of goodness. It is an enabler of lies, a debaser of language, an inexhaustible engine for creating more enemies, a moral cancer within our nation and thus a threat to our democracy, a mortal threat to American servicemen and women who might be captured by a future enemy. Torture as a series of actions makes us guilty of techniques used by the Gestapo and the NKVD. It corrodes our integrity and thus our credibility in speaking on moral issues to an international audience. Torture did not work, and it “stained our honor.”^*
Perhaps the most important and most enduring American ideal is that we are an exceptional people, that we belong to a “shining city on a hill”** and that in some misty, mythic context are a chosen nation, indispensable, a light to the world. What becomes of this self-portrait in the presence of the stark reality of what we have done in all those stinking cells scattered across the dark world?
Have we become a people so afraid and cruel, a people so simplified by spectacle, celebrity and a trance inducing, omnipresent media that we no longer have the sustained capacity for reflection or honor?
Unless it is rejected, cruelty cannot be contained. It is not a tool to be employed and put away. It is a virus. What hubris to believe that once we endorse torture as a part of our collective character that we can control its foul and contagious effects.
We do not know their names (which have all been redacted from the CIA documents), but right now those men we have trained to torture, and the men who have supervised these programs and carried out the orders to destroy bodies and minds are reading the paper and drinking their morning coffee and waiting for the inevitable next attack. What will we choose in its aftermath? Will we sacrifice everything else just so we can be safe? Will some soft, smooth official in a suit place a phone call to those ferocious men in their sunny morning homes and tell them that yes, now, go to work in the dungeons we have said are again permissible?
^* John McCain, Senator and POW who suffered torture by the North Vietnamese: from the Senate Floor, December 9, 2014
**City on a Hill, 1630