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Torture is More Than Just "Harsh Tactics"


Once again, the issue of torture by US operatives is in the news.  Barack Obama’s administration recently released some classified information from the recent past that details the debates and eventual support for the program of torture undertaken by the CIA, US military and others in the so-called war on terror.  As the reader presumably knows, Mr. Obama has gone on record stating that the Justice department will not prosecute those CIA operatives who were actually involved in interrogations where torture was used, but he has left the door open on prosecutions of those who designed and legitimized the tactics.  According to Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles,

“The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

Mr. Obama’s decision has essentially negated this principle as far as the actions of US operatives goes.  By doing so, his administration has made itself complicit in the crimes of the Bush administration.

In addition, he is continuing the trend of placing Washington above international law.  Like Tel Aviv, Washington only obeys UN resolutions that it supports and ignores those that are critical of its designs.  Washington also considers its troops and mercenaries essentially immune from international war crimes trials, even passing legislation that insists on the use of US military force to free Americans if they should fall into the hands of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.  This putting itself above the law does not only hold true in the international arena but domestically as well.  In a confluence of Tel Aviv’s and Washington’s worst expansionist interests, the Justice Department is considering dropping charges against agents for the Israeli Lobby AIPAC caught spying on the United States.  According to media reports, the subject of reducing the charges was first brought up by a US congresswoman.

But this is not what this piece is really about.  Even more curious than the assumption that those who carried out the orders to torture by actually torturing prisoners in US custody is the conversation in the US mainstream media in the wake of the Justice Department’s release of the memos and other documents regarding that torture.  To begin with, essentially no major newspaper has used the term “torture” to describe the tactics in question.  Instead, euphemisms like “harsh tactics” and “extreme interrogation techniques” are used to describe the acts of the torturers.  If the word torture is mentioned, it is in a context that goes something like this:  these harsh tactics, which some consider to be torture….  In other words, only those that have questionable motives would dare to call US servicemen and agents torturers.  Furthermore, continues this argument, maybe the worse thing these agents and servicemen did was accidentally hurt someone to save our nation from some bad guys.

Even beyond this type of enabling the torturers, most recently the New York Times ran an analysis article titled “At Core of Detainee Fight: Did Methods Stop Attacks?”  In essence, the piece discusses whether or not the tactics the Times euphemistically calls “harsh” were effective in halting attacks by Al-Queda.  Besides the fact that nobody can honestly provide any definitive answer to this discussion, what the article really does is move the discussion about torture away from the ethical issues involved to one of its efficacy.  This is the ground where the torturers and their apologists prefer the debate to reside.  As long as the debate is one that does not include morality, the torturers can justify their tactics by claiming that they did what they were supposed to do–prevent attacks.  Even though such a debate is essentially meaningless, neither those for torture or against it can prove its effectiveness or ineffectiveness, so the torturers remain on equal footing with those opposed to torture.

What the news media is doing by providing a forum for this discussion about the supposed usefulness of torture is nothing less than providing a legitimate basis for the torturers to get away with serious crimes that would appall most US citizens if they were being committed by a foreign agent on US citizens.  The debate around the systematic torture of prisoners in US custody by the CIA and  others acting in Washington’s interest should not be about the efficacy of such tactics.  Nor should it be about their legality, since they are clearly illegal.  Indeed, the debate should not even be about the morality of such tactics, since a nation that (however mistakenly) perceives itself to be a moral beacon for the world should have no doubt that torture is immoral.  No, the only debate regarding the torture of detainees undertaken by the previous administration and its agents should be which members of that administration should be indicted for the crimes they committed in the establishment and undertaking of the torture regime.

Mr. Holder and the Justice Department he runs should not hesitate to put all of those responsible for these crimes in the docket.  Nor should he be afraid to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law, no matter what.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

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