Public Comment

Legal Cover for Torture Is Unconscionable

By Marvin Chachere
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 06:54:00 PM

I thought the rage I felt so often during the Bush administration would fade away. It actually quieted a little but got aroused to a fever pitch when memos from years ago authorizing torture were made public and started a whirlwind of furious reactions. Evidently, not everyone agrees that human beings inflicting excruciating pain on a bound and helpless human being is torture and that all torture, no matter the purpose, is a crime.  

Although torturing prisoners has ceased, our leaders are agonizing over the question of exactly how its use, while Bush was president, should be dealt with. Answers range from irrational exuberance through truth and reconciliation commissions and sober history-based analyses to slobbering and virulent justifications.  

After 9/11/01, Alan Dershowitz, renowned lawyer and Harvard professor, argued that “there are right times to torture.” Jay Bybee (now a federal judge) and John Yoo (then and now a law professor) working for the Justice Department, developed pseudo-legal grounds for using torture. Last week, in the wake of their memos that detailed what everyone already knew, former Vice President Dick Cheney went on CNN to introduce a Facebook Page for “fans of torture” (see Andy Borowitz blog). 

Becky O’Malley, Executive Editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet, wants the country to join in a “forthright denunciation of the Obama administration’s apparent plan to let the torturers and their instigators off the hook” (Editorial, April 23–29, 2009).  

David Brooks on the Lehrer News Hour (April 24) professed to withhold judgment until he knows for certain if harsh/enhanced interrogation techniques yielded “actionable intelligence,” unaware evidently that he takes Dershowitz’s side and thereby holds himself open to the moral error of permitting the end to justify the means—if torture helps catch terrorists and saves lives, then it’s OK. 

David Broder, Washington Post col-umnist, takes a sober historical view as befits his career spanning half of his four score years, a view I find so lukewarm that I want to spit (see Book of Revelations, 3, 16). He believes there are sound reasons for not prosecuting torturers and thinks that Obama, perhaps because of his kind heart, is right not to look back and try to humiliate and/or punish “those responsible for the policies of the past.” Broder accuses people like me and Becky O’Malley of being bent on vengeance, scapegoating, “looking for individual scalps—or at least, careers and reputations.” I can’t answer for Becky but there were many scalps close to Bush I wanted but was never close enough to take. 

It may be that being two years older than Broder I experience acute diminishments of my body’s strength, stamina and nimbleness, which luckily are offset by growths of those same features in my thinking. Allow me, therefore, to cite a few blood-curdling events of the past that are connected in a way that puts torture in perspective.  

In every war large numbers of human beings are organized, trained and equipped to inflict destruction and death on large numbers of their fellow human beings. To do this, individuals must be persuaded that the individuals on the other side are demons, less than human, worthless, dangerous, a plague on the planet and therefore undeserving of life.  

Destruction of the other side is the ultimate goal of war and in modern times fearsome technologies are available for spreading death on a massive scale from a distance, sight unseen. Killings by the tens and hundred of thousands from out-of-sight warriors highlight recent wars: a firestorm holocaust in Dresden (March 1945), Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945), napalm bombs, incendiary bombs, missiles, drones, etc.  

By contrast torture must be done face to face, or rather many faces to one face.  

Because the brotherhood of mankind is not easily cast aside, the face of the tortured person is often covered; the tortured one cannot see his torturers and they cannot see the face of the person they are torturing. A person without a face is a non-person. Without a face you can do anything you want. Covering a person’s face strips him of his manhood. In this way torturers render the tortured invisible, a predicament that Ralph Ellison elaborated dramatically, albeit less gruesomely, in his classic bestseller The Invisible Man (1955). 

Neither the reasons nor the efficacy of torture justify the unspeakable cruelty. The fact that persons can inflict extremely agonizing pain on another person is an abomination; it defiles the human species. The torture described in lurid detail in the memos is, from a moral standpoint, worse than murder. To provide legal cover for it is unconscionable. 

Perhaps Yoo and Bybee in their Justice Department offices could no more see the consequences of their legal hair-splitting, far away in a prison cell at Abu Ghraib, than the crew in the Enola Gay, tens of thousands of feet above Hiroshima, could see what their bomb had wrought.  

My heart bleeds for both the tortured and the torturers but it bleeds more for the torturers.  

Torturing a person creates indelible scars. Far deeper harm exudes permanently into the souls of those responsible for it. 


Marvin Chachere is a resident of San Pablo.