The current debate about torture is an astonishing symptom of how a civilization can regress morally and politically despite the technological advances it may make.
For the Enlightenment of the 18th century, torture was one of the barbarities of the old absolutist regimes that the great bourgeois revolutions were to sweep away.
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, adopted in 1791, which forbade “cruel and unusual punishments”, was a product of that era. Yet now we have Dick Cheney, vice-president of the US under that same constitution, mounting a fierce battle in the Senate in defence of the right of the CIA to use torture.
George Bush says the US “doesn’t do torture”. But in August 2002 his satirically named department of justice issued a legal opinion which said (according to the summary in the New York Times) “interrogation methods just short of those that might cause pain comparable to ‘organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death’ could be allowable without being considered torture”.
Charles Krauthammer, a leading US neo-conservative commentator, is less mealy mouthed.
Writing last week in the Weekly Standard, he argues that there are “very real cases in which we are morally permitted—indeed morally compelled” to torture terrorist suspects.
He also gloats over the torture meted out to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an al-Qaida leader:
“There is water-boarding, a terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique in which the prisoner has his face exposed to water in a way that gives the feeling of drowning. According to CIA sources cited by ABC News, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ‘was able to last between two and two and a half minutes before begging to confess’.”
The recent revelations that the CIA has been using airports around Europe as stop-offs for flights carrying prisoners for torture in so called “black sites”—secret prisons—in central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East couldn’t have been worse timed for the Bush administration.
They came as secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was setting off on a European tour. This was intended as a continuation of the efforts that Bush and Rice have been making to woo European governments since his re-election.
The Bush administration seemed to have recognised it can’t run the world without the help of the European Union (EU) as junior partners. Nato, under European leadership, is due to take over responsibility for the occupation of Afghanistan.
The torture flight revelations threatened to reopen and deepen the divide between the US and the EU. Rice initially said the US respects the sovereignty of its allies, implying that European intelligence agencies had known what was going on.
But she was forced to beat a retreat, issuing a statement in Ukraine last week that US personnel were bound by the UN convention against torture whether they were based at home or abroad. The US state department spun this as a policy shift.
Previously the Bush administration had claimed the convention didn’t govern its activities outside the US. The White House seemed to be ditching Cheney and trying to negotiate a deal with senator John McCain. He has proposed legislation imposing an absolute ban on US personnel using torture.
This apparent retreat by the Bush administration is a reflection of its growing domestic unpopularity and its international isolation. Like its failure to sabotage the Montreal conference on climate change, it shows the depth of the international crisis of legitimacy the US is suffering.
But the shift was more symbolic than real. Rice’s statement implied that the administration still believes itself not to be legally bound by the convention against torture, but merely chooses to observe it as a matter of policy. The whole point of “extraordinary renditions” is to sub contract torture by flying prisoners to dictatorships where the pain is inflicted by non-US personnel anyway.
Torture is an instrument of imperial rule, used by the US and its clients to maintain global domination. The only way to free the world of this barbarity is to get rid of the system responsible for it.