The Conservative Case Against Torture
Posted on April 22, 2009The Conservative Case Against Torture
I have been thinking long and hard about the whole issue of torture.
Dick Cheney, the former Vice President, wants the whole record out on torture. He thinks that the Obama Administration has selectively leaked only one side of the story. He believes (and he would know better than me) that the real record should reflect that the torture really worked.
And that has got me thinking. So what? So what if torture worked in some cases?
In a sense, that makes the use of torture even more intrinsically wrong. What good is it to gain security but lose our soul as a nation. The ends should never justify the means. If a little torture works a little, what stops us from using a lot of torture if it works very well?
Torture is wrong. It was wrong when the Nazis did it. It was wrong when the Communist Chinese did it. But it is even more wrong when we do it.
Conservatives shouldn’t be stuck defending practices that go against their political philosophy. And torture runs counter to American conservative thought. Here are four reasons that conservatives should not be suckered into defending the Bush Administration on the issue of torture.
First, the bedrock of conservative thought is the Constitution. Conservatives make a point of carrying the Constitution around in their pockets. But torture is clearly unconstitutional. When it ratified the Convention against torture and other cruel and degrading treatment in 1994, the Senate defined “cruel, inhuman and degrading” as any practice that would violate the Fifth, Eighth or 14th Amendments. Waterboarding enemy combatants is cruel and unusual punishment as defined in the Eighth Amendment, and waterboarding without due process violates both the Fifth and 14th Amendments. You can’t be a defender of both the Constitution and torture, no matter how much good the torture does.
Second, it completely shatters the myth of American exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan put it best when he called America “that shining city on the hill.” America is truly the greatest country in the world, in no small part because we have a Constitution that guarantees the rights of its citizens, and because we don’t torture. How can America be exceptional if it does the same kind of crap that the Russians, the Chinese, the Egyptians or the Arabs do? How can we say that we are freest nation, the best nation on earth, the last, best hope for civilization when we allow the state to waterboard, to humiliate and to beat up prisoners?
Third, conservatives usually have a healthy distrust of the state. Why should they suddenly think that allowing the state to torture anybody somehow is a good thing? As a conservative (and I am a conservative), I am very leery of giving the state this much power. What prevents the state from using this kind of power on domestic “terrorists”? Is the state so infallible that it can always accurately distinguish between who are real threats to society and who are just innocent bystanders who happened to get picked up at the wrong place at the wrong time? There are plenty of instances where we were clearly wrong in picking up guys who looked suspicious but were completely innocent. What happens when we torture these poor suckers and then find out that they didn’t really know anything in the first place? Are you comfortable giving the state this kind of power?
Fourth, conservatives should never be put in a situation of having to defend the Machiavellian philosophy that the end justifies the means. While a prince in the past might have used all of his tools to defend his throne, in our democracy, we use laws and the Constitution. The process of democracy is every bit as important as the end result. Promoting the general welfare, defending freedom, protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not just about making certain that every American has a flat screen television in his living room and an IPod in his ear. It is the process of participation that gives each American a chance to be heard and to play a role in our society. We degrade that process when we promote the concept that in order to defend the Constitution, we must ignore it.
When the Vice President suggests that the reason we should support the use of techniques that have been called torture by our own government for decades because it got us some information that might have saved lives, I think he misses the mark. Waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong. We don’t use evidence in the court of law if it is obtained by a cop who beats the snot out of a criminal, because that is wrong. The same should apply to torture.
I am not hopelessly naïve. But I also don’t want our government run by cynics who throw out the Constitution in the name of national defense. I know that in wartime, things happen. Soldiers make mistakes, bombs kill innocent people, and every once in a while, desperate times require desperate measures. But the rule of law must reign supreme, even in a time of war. And that is my biggest objection to the revelations that come in these torture memos. In this case, the rule of law was roundly ignored, or parsed or cavalierly avoided. Many people within the Bush Administration knew what was happening was wrong. And while they did their best to stop it, they weren’t successful because of an overriding fear of the unknown that dominated the decision-makers.
Our democracy will remain strong only if we are able to stick with the law and the Constitution when we encounter that fear of the unknown.
Conservatives are going to tie themselves up in knots defending methods of interrogation that are clearly torture. They shouldn’t. They should politely thank the Vice President for his service, and a make certain that we never torture again. Torture is wrong. We know in our hearts it is wrong.
America is a beacon for freedom around the globe, but that only works when we act responsibly, in a way that promotes human rights and protects human dignity. We don’t act that way when we give the state the power to torture people in the name of protecting our safety.