SPECIAL REPORT: The Moral Implications of Torture

Links to Carnegie Council resources

January 21, 2005

With the January 15, 2005 sentencing of Charles Graner, one of the principals indicted for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, it is tempting for Americans to put these appalling incidents behind them. In fact, according to Frank Rich of the New York Times, many did so quite some time ago. "Since the early bombshells from Abu Ghraib last year, the torture story has all but vanished from television, even as there have been continued revelations in the major newspapers and magazines," he wrote a few days after the trial ended. “If a story isn’t on TV in America, it doesn't exist in our culture."

Yet we have a moral imperative not to lapse into complacency and allow the story to end there. Were the abusers at Abu Ghraib "just a few rotten apples," as President Bush said immediately after the scandal broke? Or have torture and abuse become an integral, though largely hidden, part of the "war on terror"? Many contend that (then) White House Chief Counsel Gonzales’s memo of 2002 set the moral climate in which such behavior has been tacitly encouraged and condoned, both in Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo. While not mentioning torture by name, the memo argued that since members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not traditional soldiers (like those the United States had faced in the world wars and the Korean War), the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war does not apply. "In my judgement, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions," wrote Gonzales.

This is not the first time that authorities, including our own, have resorted to torture when confronted with unconventional forces—nor will it be the last. The argument is a perennial one: terror can only be countered with terror. Some would even argue that torture is inevitable when the enemy is not easily identifiable and is willing to go to any lengths, including suicide bombings. Others, however, maintain that torture can never be acceptable as it betrays our ideals and undermines our claim to the moral high ground. Furthermore, the practice can be counterproductive. Over the longer term, it brutalizes our soldiers, alienates the civilians we are trying to help, and gives others license to treat Americans in the same way. In the case of Abu Ghraib, those unforgettable photos, deliberately calculated to cause maximum humiliation, are likely to damage the reputation of the United States across the Muslim world for decades to come.

This special report consists of excerpts from Carnegie Council resources (with links to full texts) on the moral implications of prisoner abuse.

ARNOLD RESNICOFF, former U.S. Navy chaplain and Carnegie Council trustee: War is not only a danger to our lives; it is a danger to our humanity. War can numb our sense of good and feed the beast within. The problem isn't that we don't have good people in uniform. The problem is that war can turn even the best into different people. Using all the tools at their command, [military] leaders must prepare their forces to withstand threats to judgement, ethics, and morale. When we review words and documents to learn how things go wrong, we must not just ask what leaders said, but they should have said but did not. Read more...

JOEL ROSENTHAL, president, Carnegie Council: Make no mistake. We are living in an era of indefinite detentions and "ghost detainees"—prisoners kept off the books. Whenever two sets of books are being kept, there is a serious ethical problem. Such action is not in keeping with the best of America's political tradition. Torture of political prisoners is a flagship issue—an issue with enormous symbolic power and potential. If the United States is to recapture the mantle of moral leadership, it must mount a genuine effort to re-think its approach to the war on terrorism with a serious reconsideration of its treatment of prisoners. Read more...

LILI COLE, senior program officer, History and the Politics of Reconciliation program: "Ghost detainees" is one of the most chilling phrases to enter our language. It emerged from revelations about torture at Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad and other sites. It refers to the CIA detainees in Abu Ghraib who were not accounted for in the detention system and therefore had no official existence. These individuals were deliberately placed in a legal and bureaucratic limbo that is nearly impossible to penetrate; there were therefore no limits on what can be done to them. The health of the American polity requires that detainees, even dangerous ones, occupy recognizable human and legal categories. Read more...

PAUL BLACKSTOCK, espionage expert and author of a WORLDVIEW article, published in 1970, on the moral implications of torture practices in Vietnam: After the initial shock of disclosure of the U.S. atrocities at My Lai, the mass of American citizens has either repressed the evidence into their subconscious, preferring to forget the whole unpleasant business, or have rationalized it along the lines of c'est la guerre, thus making it tolerable. In practice the use of torture and related forms of persuasion have very real and damaging effects on the private individuals who employ such means, as well as feedback effects on the society from which they come. Read more...

--Prepared by Madeleine Lynn and Mary-Lea Cox, Communications