Thursday, September 14, 2006

Powell on Torture

Here's the great letter from Colin Powell speaking out against the use of torture, and joining the debate in Congress over the Geneva Conventions. It says many of the things that I've said here before. More importantly, it stresses something that some people legitimately don't understand- those who oppose the use of torture aren't doing so to protect the prisoners in question. They're doing so because they, we, believe that torture will ultimately hurt not only our own military, but the success of our country in the war against terror. From an existential standpoint, there are probably people in US custody who deserve to burn in the lowest depths of hell. But, the use of torture cannot stand up to the simplest cost/benefit analysis. It gains us little to nothing of value in this war, and loses us the moral high ground, the world's support, and quite likely the support of the civilian population, which will be crucial to making any progress in Iraq. A guerilla army wins by turning frightened civilians against the official army. And, for those of us who are history minded, the use of torture is exactly why France lost the startlingly similar Battle for Algiers in the 1960s.

Also, as someone who has to answer questions like "What does it mean to live in the West after the Enlightenment?" or "What is modernity?" on a regular basis, I know how central the convention forbidding torture is to our civilization. This isn't a small thing. It has to do with how we understand the individual's agency in relation to the state. The debate over the state's right to torture was one of the central turning points of the Enlightenment and hence a cornerstone of modern society. This is one of those key values that I'm supposed to pass on to the next generation. Understand this- a nation doesn't become a tyranny because bad people get into power. In fact, the leaders are largely irrelevant. What happens is that the social institutions themselves become corrupted. Even if the next president is Jesus Christ, living in a nation that allows for tortured confessions to be admitted as evidence, detentions without trial, and secret arrests is just asking for trouble. Whatever one thinks about the war on terror, having an administration in power that sees the Geneva Conventions, the Bill of Rights, and the ideas of the Enlightenment as hindrances to be overcome should be troubling.

And conservatives should ask themselves why they're not worried about the potential of President Hillary Clinton and Vice President John Kerry having these same 'rights' and nothing to prevent them from misusing them aside from their 'discretion'. It's bizarre to think that the Freepers don't think that President Hillary should be able to take away their guns (neither do I), but they think that she should be able to spy on them, arrest them secretly, keep them for months without a trial, never tell them what they've been accused of, torture a 'confession' out of them, and then keep them in jail for life or execute them. Maybe Bush really will just have these things done to al-quaida members (although he hasn't so far), but why hope that every single President who takes part in this endless war will do the same?

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