Torture, Moral Vanity and Freedom


One defensive reply from those who favor legalizing and authorizing torture of military detainees is that those of us who oppose it are preening morally or subject to moral vanity. Unfortunately, when you passionately oppose an absolute moral evil, it is very hard to avoid such an impression. All I can say is that I do not think of myself as a moral exemplar in any way. I'm a guilt-ridden, self-hating Catholic who was nonetheless brought up to believe as a matter of fundamental morality that torturing another human being - the deliberate infliction of cruelty and suffering on a defenseless person - is categorically evil. Nothing can make it good. It cannot be placed in a utilitarian context, because its violation of human dignity is so grave it is an absolute evil. This, by the way, is not a marginal position for a Christian. No Christian church, authority or theologian justifies torture. Christianity condemns it without reservation. And the fact that the church itself has inflicted torture in the past has perhaps helped to make this stricture absolute.

But for those who believe such a moral argument is somehow inherently self-righteous, let me try another tack. In a constitutional democracy based on the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the abolition of torture in wartime was a defining mark of America. Washington himself set the moral standard and insisted on humane treatment of all military prisoners - as a defining mark of a new civilization. And the connection between liberty and torture is a very close one. There is no human being who has less liberty than a person being tortured ...

Even a prisoner in a small cell can stand and walk a little, can breathe on his own, has the capacity to tend to his own bodily functions, and to think or pray. Torture is designed to rob him of all these last shreds of liberty. It takes control of his body and soul and by the use of physical or psychological coercion, rids him of any real freedom at all. It puts him into the abyss of tyranny on a personal scale. And any man or woman who is given the license to torture and any man or woman who grants the right to torture is definitionally a tyrant over another person. There is no state more abject than the man broken on the waterboarding rack, or frozen to near death, or forced to stand for days on end, or hooded and strapped to shackles in a ceiling, or having his legs pulpified by repeated beating, or forced to eat pork and drink alcohol against religious strictures. Everything I have just described has been done by US forces under the command and direction of George W. Bush. They are all acts of absolute tyanny, conducted by people who at that moment are absolute tyrants.

The evil of torture is therefore not just a moral one. It is a political one. A constitutional republic dedicated before everything to the protection of liberty cannot legalize torture and remain a constitutional republic. It imports into itself a tumor of pure tyranny. That tumor, we know from history, always always spreads, as it has spread in the US military these past shameful years. The fact that hefty proportions of US soldiers now support its use as a routine matter reveals how deep the rot has already gone. The fact that now a majority of Republican candidates proudly support such torture has rendered the GOP the party most inimical to liberty in America. When you combine torture's evil with the claims of the hard right that a president can ignore all laws and all treaties in wartime, and that "wartime" is now permanent, you have laid the ground for the abolition of the American experiment in self-government. Imagine another terror attack, with Rudy Giuliani as president, and a mandate to arrest and torture at will, with no need to follow or even address the rule of law. We would no longer be a republic. We would be in a protectorate of one man.

America is in danger. And the danger is coming increasingly from within. This was Osama bin Laden's hope and plan - to destroy this country's freedom. He has been more successful than he could have imagined. And he's still alive to enjoy it.

(Photo of Donald Rumsfeld who personally monitored the torture of some detainees by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty.)