History Will Judge our Torture Record

by Aaron Leonard  this article was originally published in the Washington Square News

I've been thinking of ancient Rome recently. When it came to imperial power, Rome was known for its ruthlessness and willingness to descend to any tactic to deal with enemies. When people look back a thousand years from now, to what degree will that same image define the U.S. empire?
I thought of this after reading through the latest wave of CIA documents released at the end of August. They were full of descriptions of practices such as waterboarding, which is meant to "produce the sensation of drowning and suffocation." Or of "walling," such that a detainee is slammed "into a flexible false wall." Or of using power drills to scare prisoners. Or of how interrogators would tell prisoners that "we're going to kill your children." Or of the practice of putting "a harmless insect" into small boxes where prisoners are held. (Harmless? Like spiders?)
People tell me we've all heard enough about torture. We know what happened. But I can't help thinking that most people don't know as much as they think they do.
Do they know that at Guantanamo Bay, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the prisoner Ait Idir was slammed head first into the cell floor, then lowered face-first into the toilet, which was flushed while his head was submerged? That afterward he was carried outside and had a hose stuffed in his mouth with the water turned on? That a soldier then jumped on his head, leaving the left side of his face paralyzed? Do they know that in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the U.S. Army issued a report by Maj. Gen. George Fay that described "an alleged contest between two Army dog handlers to see who could make the internees urinate or defecate in the presence of the dogs"?
In April, I wrote a column deriding torture. I wrote that torture says a lot about the state of civilization at any given time. What it says right now is something sickening. That column provoked a letter to WSN in which the writer claimed that torture worked. He gave the example of how the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed preempted a terrorist attack on Los Angeles. Unfortunately for that writer, it didn't. Mohammed was arrested in March 2003. The so-called "L.A. plot" was discovered in early 2002, a year before his arrest. So far the main lesson that's been learned is that torture is among the worst ways to collect intelligence.
This argument that torture works -- with Dick "I-want-to-keep-my-ass-out-of-jail" Cheney leading the way -- has had a major effect on the framing of the torture debate.
Yes, we are debating whether to torture in 2009. This is not right. Torture is morally beyond the pale. Period. Full stop. It is also unambiguously illegal. The Geneva Convention clearly prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."
To those who ask "What if it did work?": I ask what does a world look like where you can pretty much do anything you want and justify it as "keeping people safe"? Where do you draw the limits? Is that a world you would want to live in?
In Rome, crucifixion wasn't just execution; it was execution by torture. The Romans used it on those they wanted to make an example of. History, to paraphrase John Ashcroft, has not looked kindly on that. How will history look on walling, rendition and waterboarding?