The Case Against Torture

A New U.S. Threat to Human Rights

The result is an ever expanding definition of those deemed legitimate to torture. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem estimated that before torture was outlawed by their High Court in 1999, it was used by the security services against 85 percent of the Palestinians they interrogated—some 23,000 during the first intifada (1987 to 1994)—who were shackled to tiny chairs and left in agonizing positions, shaken violently, subjected to long stretches of blaring loud music and punishing bright lights, or deprived of sleep. (Just last week, the UN Committee Against Torture said that because of a loophole in the High Court ruling, certain types of questionable conduct continue and "slip through the net"; Israel denied that it uses torture, saying that it fights terrorism with "one hand tied behind its back.") In practical terms, says Marton, the likely result is not the prevention of terrorism, but its production: "The men are broken after the experience of being tortured. Their families feel the consequences and want to take revenge."

Torturers must dehumanize their victims in order to do their jobs, Marton and Feitlowitz agree, and typically they can find validation in the prevailing attitudes of the culture more generally. For instance, imagery and policies that depict criminals as depraved and irredeemable contribute to a climate in which U.S. guards feel justified in using electroshock stunbelts on inmates (a practice condemned as torture by Amnesty International last year); Feitlowitz's book details how the terminology of the Dirty War made barbaric deeds in Argentina palatable; the citizens who serve in Israel's army hear Palestinians described as vermin by some of the highest leaders of the land.

In turn, the abuse of human rights has corrosive effects on society at large. "If you turn the dignity of the human body and soul to rubbish when you are on duty," says Marton, "you can't help but bring that attitude home. You can't compartmentalize the violence. So Israeli men kill each other over a parking place. Or—as we've seen this year as the violence of putting down the new intifada has intensified—the number of rapes and domestic violence cases rises sharply."

Illustration by Catherine Parr

Those calling for at least a consideration of torture against suspected Al Qaeda associates point out that in extraordinary times, extraordinary measures must be taken. But just as the guarantee to free speech needs to be invoked only when expression is being attacked, the UN Convention Against Torture is needed only when countries are tempted to use it. That's why Article 2 stipulates: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

And then, of course, there's the Constitution. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Jay Winik urges us to loosen our hold on civil liberties and protections now and worry about restoring them later. "When our nation is secure again, so too will be our principles," he promises. But the principles are in place precisely for times like these.

"Israel doesn't have a constitution," says Marton. "We don't have the tradition of civil rights. So you can say we are poor savages trapped in stupid and terrible ways of thinking and practices. But America, which we all look to for its 200 years of constitutional principles—what happened?"

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