Defiant As Ever

Director R.J. Cutler has put together a film on Dick Cheney’s life that will appear on Sundance TV and later on Showtime. It features lengthy interviews with a candid and “defiant” Dick Cheney who says, among other things, that he has no regrets whatever about the torture techniques that were used to get information about terrorists — including the infamous “waterboarding.” Quoting Cheney, the Yahoo News story goes on:

“Are you going to trade the lives of other people because you want to preserve your honor?” Cheney replies when asked about waterboarding and other controversial interrogation techniques. “You do what’s required. That’s not a close call for me.”

Cheney always struck me as a thoroughly unprincipled man in a world of politics where principles are as rare as three dollar bills. This quote confirms that suspicion. It brings back that whole George W. Bush-era, all the lies about the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that Iraq didn’t have that led to the invasion that many think brought about the economic recession we now find ourselves in. It brings back memories of the thousands of American lives that were lost and the millions of  Iraqis who were killed and/or displaced in a war that appears to have been about the oil fields. At the time I recall that while the invasion was taking place, the Army’s first objective was to protect the oil fields — not, say, the museums where millions of dollars worth of treasure was being stolen or destroyed. But we know what matters to the powers that be.

In any event, the Machiavellian-like approach Cheney takes to politics is positively chilling. He asks what he regards as a rhetorical question that makes it clear that “honor” doesn’t count for anything when human lives are at stake. But we know that the human lives he has in mind are not foreign, they are of the domestic variety. I have always had a problem with those who insist that American lives are somehow “worth” more than foreign lives. This was the argument used after the Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. It seems to me that all human lives are equally valuable, none more than others.

“You do what is required” translates into “the end justifies the means.” It means that morality has no place at the table and expediency is the name of the game. But even if we allow that torture was necessary to save American lives — which is debatable — the very act of submitting another human being to waterboarding and other interrogation techniques reduces the victim to a sub-human level. And it reduces the torturer as well.

Socrates said long ago that the one who inflicts harm on another harms himself more than he does the other person. That was an extraordinary insight on Socrates’ part and it is something that people like Dick Cheney will never understand.

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Culpable or Coverup?

A recent article in the New York Times about the investigations into the culpability of those Americans accused of torture and other atrocities committed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth comment. The article begins as follows:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths of a prisoner in Afghanistan in 2002 and another in Iraq in 2003, eliminating the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the C.I.A.

As the article goes on to point out this determination was based on Holder’s conviction that no verdict could be reached beyond a “reasonable doubt.” This conclusion will satisfy no one but the guilty themselves and those who would make excuses for them. At the very least to the rest of the world it will appear to be a cover-up (whether it is or not). It is common knowledge that atrocities were committed and that at least two horrible deaths resulted from the tactics used by the CIA in extracting information about possible al-Qaeda personnel and movements. I would have liked to see our dirty linen aired in an international court. That way a decision not to prosecute could not be questioned.

The typical rationale for permitting torture is the supposed “fact” that information gleaned by these methods led directly to the death of people like Osama bin Laden. The assumption is (and it is important to note that this is an assumption) we could not have gotten that information in any other way. The reasoning is as follows: the end justifies the means if and only if the means are the only or the best possible available to achieve the end. There is some question whether torture was the only or the best means to the end of capturing or killing bin Laden.

To take another example, we attempted to justify the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan by this reasoning: if we had not dropped those bombs thousands of American lives would have been lost in the invasion of mainland Japan. The viability of this reasoning assumes, of course, that American lives are more intrinsically valuable than the countless Japanese lives killed by the bombs, a questionable assumption at best. It also assumes that this was the only means to forcing Japan to surrender without an invasion of the mainland — another questionable assumption.

In any event, the attempt to justify torture on the grounds that the end justifies those means is spurious precisely because it rests on what logicians call a “counter-factual.” We have no way of knowing if the U.S. could have found Bin Laden, say, by means other than torture resulting at least twice in human death. It is quite possible that torture was not necessary — if a sufficient reward was offered, for example. Besides, torture is such an unmitigated evil that any attempt to morally justify torture is doomed to failure. The best one can do is rationalize the act on the grounds of expediency.

In any event, the U.S. government has officially washed its hands of the incidents and though the military continues to deploy drone strikes against al-Qaeda, we like to regard ourselves as possessing the moral high ground in the war on terror. This is questionable, since our tactics are themselves terroristic — sending drones into crowded neighborhoods where the innocent along with the guilty fall victim to the strikes. But presumably there is no more waterboarding or torture of any kind — if we can believe what we are told. There are those, however, who will pursue the matter further since there are grounds for doubt as to whether this investigation was politically motivated or indeed undertaken with a high moral purpose. Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First is not so sure. As the article concludes:

Ms. Massimino noted that in some other countries, the torture and death of prisoners have been the subject of public inquiries decades after the events. “I don’t think this is over,” she said. “I take the long view.”