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COMMENTARY: Torture report needs full disclosure

2014-04-15T23:13:00Z 2014-04-15T23:21:35Z COMMENTARY: Torture report needs full disclosureBy JOHN M. CRISP McClatchy-Tribune Glens Falls Post-Star
April 15, 2014 11:13 pm  • 

When my students use their cellphones to text during class, they always do so furtively, hands beneath a desk or hidden (they think) behind a strategically positioned purse or backpack. Thus, they affirm this very human principle: When we’re doing something we know we’re not supposed to be doing, we usually try to hide it.

Accordingly, despite an 11-3 vote this month by the Senate Intelligence Committee to declassify the results of its four-year investigation into the use of “harsh interrogation techniques,” that is, torture, after 9/11, resistance from CIA officials and some Republicans is predictable.

According to McClatchy and other media organizations, the committee’s review of millions of CIA documents revealed little evidence torture produced much useful information, and it appears the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were more “enhanced” than we were led to believe.

Committee chair Dianne Feinstein argued for full disclosure: “The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen.”

It’s not that torture is a slippery slope; it’s that all human progress is, from savagery to enlightenment. The journey away from human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, genital mutilation, genocide, slavery, child labor, discrimination, intolerance, and repression of women has been slow, difficult, and halting. Sometimes progress stops altogether, and very, very often, civilization regresses.

We don’t serve the aspirations of this progress with Orwellian euphemism to justify practices enlightened civilizations struggled to leave behind.

Some apologists for enhanced interrogation compared it to high-spirited college hazing, but they’re wrong in so many ways it’s hard to know where to begin. Waterboarding, for example, is meant to instill terror and pain, which is a fine definition of torture.

In fact, in his short history of the Spanish-American War of 1898, writer James Bradley quotes First Lt. Grover Flint, who described the regular waterboarding of Filipinos to a Senate panel: “A man suffers tremendously; there is no doubt about that.” Others called waterboarding “agony.”

So, despite denials by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Vice President Dick Cheney and former President George W. Bush (“America does not torture”), America, indeed, tortured. America should commit to never torturing again.

Or should it? No discussion of torture ever gets very far before it encounters the “ticking time bomb” scenario. A terrorist planted a nuclear device in the heart of New York City, and unless he discloses its location, thousands will die. He refuses to talk. The clock is ticking. Is torture justified to save thousands?

Sam Harris, prominent atheist and writer, has trouble thinking of a reason why we shouldn’t. He points out the philosophical paradox we face when we reject torture while accepting (or ignoring) the brutal collateral damage that occurs during the course of ordinary war.

If we are willing to incinerate innocent men, women and children with firebombing and nuclear weapons in the pursuit of some higher goal, why should we hesitate, he asked, to inflict the same level of suffering on a terrorist in order to save innocent lives?

I don’t have a good answer for that. Nor do I know if using torture in that situation turns us into torturers any more than an act of cannibalism by a castaway on a desert island turns him into a cannibal.

But the “ticking time bomb scenario” is extremely hypothetical, only loosely related to the post-911 torture committed by the Bush administration, which was a dangerous repudiation of human progress that surrendered a great deal of moral high ground.

Perhaps the only thing more morally dangerous than torture is covering it up. The full disclosure of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation will help us decide what kind of country we want to be, one that tortures or one that does not. Unless we have to.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at

Copyright 2015 Glens Falls Post-Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. loneoak
    Report Abuse
    loneoak - April 16, 2014 7:18 am
    The utopia many of the media portray does not exist. We live in a dangerous world not only foreign but domestic terrorism threatens us every day. We talk about the "moral high ground" which is a noble thought but lets not for get we are hypocritical when it comes to this concept. We stop people who are trying to expose the violence of others by censoring a documentary at institutions of "higher learning", we refuse to address genocide and the violence around the world, we forget beheaded Americans, we forget burned American bodies hanging from bridges and then question our moral high ground. The world has changed and the threats are idealist who don't wear uniforms. "Torture" has been around forever, others use it daily and even though it would be nice if everyone sent flowers and candy to get answers that is not the real world.


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