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Letter: Do Unto Others …

While usually I tend to remain hushed in silent opposition to opinion pieces with which I find disagreement, for whatever reason I felt compelled to respond to Robert McMillan’s Harsh Interrogations? in the Oct. 7, 2009 issue, which tackled the possibility of investigating the harsh interrogation tactics used by the CIA under the Bush administration, and instead proposes a different viewpoint for the reader’s consideration. From the onset it must be noted that “harsh interrogations” is simply a propaganda tool and euphemism for what can only be rationally recognized as torture. Water-boarding is not simply the simulation of drowning, it is drowning. While the act is described somewhat accurately by McMillan, the consequences are conveniently overlooked. The water poured over the person’s cloth-covered face not only radically obstructs breathing, but it initiates the panic of drowning as water enters the throat, lungs, and stomach. Oftentimes the suspect will lose consciousness only to awake, vomit and then be subjected to this technique repeatedly, again and again. It feels as though they are drowning, because they are, a little at a time. Under such tortured duress, the subject will say anything in order for the process to stop. This results in notoriously bad information and the intelligence community has known, for many years, that intelligence gathered under tortured coercion is consistently unreliable.

Additionally, McMillan is wrong in his belief that in order to gain useful information, 9/11 be looked to as a benchmark and tipping point for the United States’ abandonment of long-standing commitments against torture. He draws an emotional comparison between the devastation endured on 9/11 and that experienced during the attacks on Pearl Harbor, without realizing the contradictory irony of lessons learned during World War II. After the war, when it was learned that Japanese soldiers water-boarded American POWs, in an attempt to gain useful information for the war effort, these Japanese soldiers were tried by the U.S. and ultimately convicted of war crimes. And while McMillan notes that the CIA “sought and received multiple written assurances that the methods were lawful,” this is only because of the deplorable legal-gymnastics performed by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In a 2006 letter sent to Gonzales, signed by over 100 law professors, “The convention against torture prohibits practices that constitute the intentional infliction of ‘severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.’ The federal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2340A, similarly prohibits acts outside the United States that are specifically intended to cause ‘severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” Thus, despite the CIA’s hollow defense of the techniques, in reality these methods were and continue to be, illegal under both U.S. and International law.

Though contextually water-boarding is the alleged result of a misguided attempt at security from the threat of an elusive and multifaceted albeit deadly ideology, McMillan remarks that the current proposal of investigating and possibly prosecuting CIA employees for torturing detainees “baffles” him. What should be more baffling is why Americans have increasingly succumbed to the politics of fear and lost sight of what truly makes this nation great – namely, our steadfast commitment to freedom, liberty, and justice, for which countless numbers of Americans have bravely fought and died. McMillan states that he would like to see the documented results of the interrogations to assess if and how they might have worked to prevent future attacks. However, even if they had succeeded, the method by which they were achieved remains indefensible. America is a great nation because our citizens recognize, or should recognize, that personal freedom, liberty, and justice is of more importance that the fleeting illusion of safety. That is the sacrifice Americans made on 9/11, and one which we must continue to endure in order to live as a free nation. Perhaps if we resided in a totalitarian state, where the police were free to arrest without cause and detain indefinitely without charge or evidence, where all communications were monitored by government agencies, and where we tortured suspects at will, there’s a chance we might be slightly safer. But even that is largely debatable. And if that were the case, we would cease to be free and ultimately cease to be American.

Thus, the potential investigations and prosecutions involved with the CIA’s use of torture must be carried out, not in an effort to shame this nation but rather to celebrate its commitment to the rule of law. This is a much more sensible, civilized, and intelligent approach, to not only remind the world what it means to be an American, but to honor and uphold our Constitution and keep America safe from those who wish to destroy our nation and its values; none of which are compatible with torture.

Sean Callahan