Bush’s comments on torture deserve nothing but condemnation

In the same way that Tony Blair’s book suddenly brought him to back into the international spotlight, so has George W. Bush been catapulted once more onto the headlines and discussion columns due to his newly released autobiography/memoir ‘Decision Points’. Amongst the most nasty facets of the book is his boasting claim that the use of waterboarding foiled would-be terror attacks in the US and UK due to information being gathered from this technique.

When discussing these claims during a recent interview, Bush flippantly replied “damn right” when asked if he had ordered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be waterboarded in order to gain information.

While the UK is unequivocal in its view that waterboarding is torture (and hence has laws against it) in the US the debate seems to drag on as if it somehow weren’t settled. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney and Republican strategist Karl Rove made similar remarks earlier this year. Rove went so far as to say he was “proud” of America’s use of this technique while Cheney’s remarks elicited tiresomely long news coverage in the US media and a string of responses from opponents.

Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, a long-time opponent of torture, decided in 2008 to undergo waterboarding himself so he could speak with authority about just how traumatizing it is. He said of the experience “everything completely goes on you when you’re breathing water, you can’t think about anything else.” After describing how he had hallucinated during the ordeal and suffered nightmares since, he concluded “if waterboarding isn’t torture then there’s no such thing as torture.”

Right-wing commentators are certain to seize on Bush’s statements and his supposed authority on this subject as a defence of its continued use. It is an easy game for them to portray the opposition as naive, confused, wimp-like or, worst of all, supportive of the enemy. It plays perfectly into the “common sense” public misperception of ethics. It is imperative therefore to remind ourselves why torture is so thoroughly unacceptable whatever the alleged gains.

No entity can credibly enforce a moral code without having its own house in order. It goes without saying that terrorism should be addressed as a governing priority and fought accordingly. But in order for America to be in a position to condemn this behaviour and to take it on, it must hold its policies, practices and institutions to the highest standards of decency, fairness and ethics.

The argument is much the same for the criminal justice system and incarceration. The fact that people are given a fair trial, a chance to defend themselves and decent treatment while awaiting trial are among the main reasons why these systems have the authority to pass judgement over people. For those that end up convicted, the system gives to criminals the fair treatment that they denied to their victims. The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson discusses in an essay on morality the way that our ethical system is based on a mutual recognition of the fact we all have interests as human beings. People who claim that no such system exists have no way of posing a serious complaint once they are detained and dealt with accordingly, because by complaining they are tacitly entering into the ethical arena and recognizing that exactly these mutual interests exist. Likewise, if we wish to condemn the immoral actions of terrorists, how can it be done if we are allowing practices that are themselves immoral?

It ultimately comes down to credibility: if American politicians wish to criticise countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba for the human rights violations that these countries’ governments commit against their own people, then they must use the authority of their positions to oppose torture by the US government at every opportunity.

The consequences of not doing so can actually be dangerous. By allowing torture, America gives ammunition to terrorists and others who seek to bring harm to the West. It is potentially calamitous to pass over material for radical Islamists to pump into their propaganda machine, after all the war against these people is above all a war of ideas.

The institutionalisation of torture also serves to undermine America and its allies more generally since America will lose good will in the international community as long as torture is permitted. The US ruling class simply cannot afford to fan the flames of anti-Americanism any further given some past actions of American administrations. As much as the right may say otherwise, holding high standards of behaviour for public institutions and practices is not being weak and nor is it capitulation, it is an imperative if America wishes to maintain the respect of the world.

Certainly, the election of Barack Obama signalled hope in this area. After stating last year that he was opposed to the use of waterboarding, citing Churchill’s refusal to use torture during World War II as informing his views, he moved to ban the practice. However, opponents need to continue to hold this and future US administrations to account on this issue.

The outcome couldn’t be clearer: if an American government again allows waterboarding to masquerade as an acceptable practice for incarcerated individuals then it will be behaving in ways frighteningly similar to those which it condemns.

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