. . . Tuesday June 15, 2004

Worse Yet to Come in Torture Scandal?

Hitchens on Abu Ghraib: “But get ready. It is going to get much worse. The graphic videos and photographs that have so far been shown only to Congress are, I have been persuaded by someone who has seen them, not likely to remain secret for very long. And, if you wonder why formerly gung-ho rightist congressmen like James Inhofe (‘I’m outraged more by the outrage’) have gone so quiet, it is because they have seen the stuff and you have not. There will probably be a slight difficulty about showing these scenes in prime time, but they will emerge, never fear. We may have to start using blunt words like murder and rape to describe what we see. And one linguistic reform is in any case already much overdue. The silly word abuse will have to be dropped. No law or treaty forbids abuse, but many conventions and statutes, including our own and the ones we have urged other nations to sign, do punish torture – which is what we are talking about here at a bare minimum.”

Hitch has been on the left and the right when it comes to international issues. But in this case, it really doesn’t matter which side you’re on. Sure, we can have a debate about the level of accountability that should be required of this administration. And we can have the laughable inquiry into whether or not these acts of torture were the works of a handful of people (who apparently happened to have studied the art of interrogation and torture and their own and decided to bring the tools of the trade to Iraq just in case) or whether or not it went straight to the top at the Pentagon (if not higher).

But we cannot pretend this isn’t a big deal. Why? There are a few reasons.

First, we signed the treaties related to torturing prisoners not only out of a moral duty but because we wanted to protect our own people when they are taken prisoner. Ever hear John McCain downplay the significance of these acts?

Second, there is no evidence that these forms of torture are effective. In fact, given the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq, it is actually (because of the leaked videos and pictures) quite likely that the torture was counter-productive. This is not some liberal, humanitarian argument. This is about protecting and defending U.S. troops on the ground.

Third, for better or worse we live in a visual age where a symbolic picture goes a long way. We also live in an age during which the world opinions regarding America have been severely damaged. Abu Ghraib only makes that worse. Again, this isn’t about winning a popularity contest. It’s about being able to recruit other nations to help us in the battle to defend ourselves. The failure to get troop support from key allies is not only a political failing. It leaves our own troops less secure and away from home for a longer time. Talking tough might be welcome in certain circumstances. But negotiating for additional troop support actually helps our military. Our relationship with allies is even more critical when it comes to the war on terror.

A couple of questions to examine going forward:

One, if we believe that torture is not an acceptable behavior, then is it acceptable for us to export suspects to other countries who are less touchy about such subjects?

Two, can we rightfully call this a war on terror and still refuse to refer to those captured in that war as prisoners of war?

Concentration is important!