All’s Well That Ends Well: Torture by a “Strong” Nation

Oft expectation fails, and most oft there

Where most it promises; and oft it hits

Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits… – William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well (2.I.145-47)

Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT) (United Nations, 1984, 1987), which was signed by the United States in 1988 and ratified in 1994, defines torture during interrogation as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession…when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity (p. 1)

Study after study shows that torture does not work and affects the victim as much as the torturer…don’t take my word on it…go do a minute Google search and you will discover that people will say and admit anything…real…fake… when electrodes are attached to the scrotum or they are subjected to an almost real sensation of drowning (waterboarding). For thousands of years men for personal or governmental gain have tortured other men. For thousands of years the results has been a mixed (and electrocuted) scrotum bag of maybe the truth…maybe the false…maybe a “dear God I will tell you whatever you wanna hear just don’t pull another fucking fingernail out with your pliers!”

Senator John McCain…a victim of torture by the North Vietnamese while a POW recently stated on the floor of the Senate:

“They [Americans] must know when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies, even those policies that are conducted in secret…They must be able to make informed judgments about whether those policies and the personnel who supported them were justified in compromising our values; whether they served a greater good; or whether, as I believe, they stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good.”

What if the reported 119 individuals tortured by the CIA (according to the upcoming Senate report on CIA torture) gave one good lead? Would it be worth it? Would 5 good leads on planned terrorist attacks was the result of this torture? How does one do a cost-benefit analysis of torture? To conduct such an analysis one would need to further know what information was gained through CIA torture, and how that information was used. Unfortunately, when the giant report (with numerous parts redacted due to classified information no doubt) I feel that we will not see the benefits or leads that led to thwarted torture, instead we will read how torture victim after torture victim said whatever was necessary to save themselves. The ones…the CIA, the President(s), the military…are the only ones who will truly know how beneficial this American government-sanctioned torture was.

In the end, if the torture has led to some leads that stopped a terrorist attack…then a majority of Americans will stand happily by and sleep peacefully knowing that they are protected. But what is the cost of being secured by men who will do evil in their idea of “defending freedom?” Is America, the unilateral doer of all things globally, truly a strong nation?

Philip Bobbitt states that the War against Terror has some widely and tenaciously held assumptions:

  • that terrorism has always been with us, and though its weapons may change, it will remain fundamentally the same – the weapon of the weak seeking to wrest political control from the strong;
  • that because terrorism will always be with us, there can be no victory in a war against terror;
  • that because there is no enemy state against which such a war can be waged, the very notion of a “war” on terror is at best a public relations locution, like the “war on drugs” or the “war on poverty”;
  • that terrorism cannot be an enemy, the subject of warfare, because it is a method, a technique, even if a sinister and brutal one;
  • that because terrorism is only a means to an end – that is, because it is not distinguished by the pursuit of any particular goal – “one man’s terrorist is another’s man’s freedom fighter”;
  • that the root causes of terrorism lie in conditions of poverty, economic exploitation, neglect of health and education, and religious indoctrination that must be reversed before a war against terrorism can be won;
  • that terrorism is best treated as a problem of crime, by law enforcement officials, and not as a matter for defense departments, which are inappropriate when there are no battlefield lines or armies to confront, and when the context requires constabulary forces and political measures;
  • that if, on the other hand, terrorism is indeed a matter of warfare, there can be no place for the Geneva Convention or other rules of law in war that are applied to conventional conflicts;
  • that good intelligence provides the decisive key to defeating terrorism;
  • that terrorism will not flourish in democracies;
  • that more power governments gain, the weaker the civil liberties that belong to the public;
  • that terrorists “win” if they are able to force governments to enhance their powers of detention, surveillance, and information collection  or if the citizenry significantly modifies its everyday behavior;
  • that twenty-first century terrorism is the result of a clash of international cultures when medieval and backward worlds confront modern secular societies;
  • that confronting hostile states can only make the Wars against Terror harder to win because it diverts resources and wins fresh adherents for the terrorist enemy;
  • that the threat of terrorist attacks comes from the states of the Middle East or failed states in remote regions;
  • that if the jihadist movements are defeated, the threat of terror will subside, at least for the foreseeable future;
  • that terrorists will be confined to low-technology weapons for the foreseeable future;
  • that because they will be so confined, terrorists therefore pose at most a modest threat to the stability of modern societies;
  • that we should address this threat by concentrating on the likeliest assaults rather than preparing and organizing for the remote possibility that terrorists will pull off a truly catastrophic attack;
  • that the forces required to deal with terrorists are completely unrelated to the forces required to deal with natural disasters;
  • and, above all, that Wars against Terror really have nothing to do with such state-centric activities as ethnic cleansing and genocide or the proliferation and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction or nonpolitical events like power outages, tsunamis, famines, and other civilian catastrophes.1

The first striking thing about these numerous assumptions Bobbitt makes is the focus on “strong” versus “weak.” With this in mind, one must look at the historical context of the Peloponnesian War…as recounted to us by Thucydides. Athens…rich, imperialistic, philosophical…went to war with Sparta…militaristic and conservative. Two Greek poleis (city-states)…one a naval power (Athens…based on its rich sea trade) and one land power (Sparta…based on its history of young male conscription for its Hoplite infantry)…went to war basically over the age-old desire for societies/states to be the hegmonic power within their area of influence. Though a weak connection, one may argue that America now sits as the Athens of our age…while numerous states orbit within our sphere of influence while rogue nations and terrorist organizations represent Sparta with its strong defense of conservative ideology and their just or unjust feelings of being ignored and treated unfairly by America and its allies.

Terrorists execute prisoners, torture captives…and the Western world is aghast…how dare the “weak” resort to brutality. America tortures terrorists to ensure it gets the information and intelligence needed to protect itself from the barbaric hordes assaulting the Piraeus2 docks and the Phaleric wall.America, like Athens, views itself as a “strong” nation, and as Thucydides states in the Melian dialogue: “…as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”4

What has happened is that the CIA and the presidential administrations “supervising” it have viewed itself as a strong nation and conducted torture and a war against terror with hubris. History is written by victors as the saying goes…and as Shakespeare says all’s well that ends well. We shall see if America’s flagrant disregard to the effectiveness of torture (and potentially the use of drones) will allow it to keep its allies close at hand and its enemies at a distance. Arguably, the strength of America lies in the citizens that take an interest in the actions of its government and approves or disapproves through the ballot box.

1. Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars For The Twenty-First Century, pp.5-7.

2. Piraeus was Athen’s port and its access to its trade.

3. Phaleric Wall was a defensive line that ran southwesterly from Athens to the sea just south of the Piraeus port.

4. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, p. 352. Melos was an Greek city-state that had refused to join Athens alliance against Sparta…Athens sent emissaries that were executed…thus Athens returned with an army and made the Melians submit because they were weak.