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From Enlightenment to Empire? America's Descent Into Brutality Post-9/11


Waterboarding takes the person to the very point of drowning, whereupon he is revived and the process repeated.

Waterboarding takes the person to the very point of drowning, whereupon he is revived and the process repeated.

The Truth About Torture -- Really?

In the past, I often admired Charles Krauthammer's brilliant and insightful commentaries. Nonetheless, when various pundits and politicians were discussing the issue of "coercive" methods of interrogation in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, I was shocked when I came across Krauthammer's Weekly Standard article from several years ago, "The Truth About Torture." If truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, then Krauthammer's lens needs to be replaced.

Using the quasi-mythical "ticking time bomb" scenario, he asserted that, “If you have the slightest belief that [torturing an alleged terrorist] will get you the information to save a million people … there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible…. It is a moral duty."

Using Urban Myths to Justify Barbarism

A moral duty? By what standard? While the Ticking Time Bomb — defined as the imminent threat of a "weapons of mass destruction" event threatening to cause countless civilian casualties — has been frequently and sensationally used as a plot device in the former hit TV show "24" and other Hollywood productions, it's only that -- a Hollywood story line. It's never happened. Therefore, to use it to justify torture is as weak as it is morally bankrupt.

Krauthammer believes in human rights ― but with certain unsettling conditions. He argues that human rights derive from one's "status" or behavior. So, if you fit a predefined category (civilian or "enemy combatant," e.g., an identifiable soldier of an established state), you have rights. If not, you don't.

As he puts it, "Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what … terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing." (Emphasis added.)

A reckless and aggressive young New York State legislator, Greg Ball, recently took Krauthammer's stance to the next level of brutality in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing. On April 22, 2013, he opined on Twitter that the authorities should torture the surviving suspect, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, if there was any chance of getting some helpful intel.

That night, CNN's Piers Morgan interviewed Ball on "Piers Morgan Live," but was barely able to get a word in edgewise as Ball blasted Morgan with a nonstop stream of gung-ho bombast. Forget the Bill of Rights or the American legal presumption of "innocent until proven guilty." Ball refused to budge from the idea that torturing an American teenager, even without a Ticking Time Bomb scenario, would be perfectly acceptable.

The Bush Administration's Pro-Torture Policy

L to R: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney

L to R: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney

The ethical-legal problem for Krauthammer and the dangerously hotheaded Ball is that their argument rests solely on a highly controversial Bush Administration legal perspective that flies in the face of a long-established body of international and domestic law prohibiting the use of torture and "cruel, unusual, and degrading" treatment (CID) ― including the United Nations Convention on Torture (passed by Congress and, therefore, now U.S. law), the 4th and 8th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and time-honored legal principles of habeas corpus and due process.

This rogue legal perspective originated in the aftermath of the unprecedented terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when legal loopholes were sought so that the President could issue orders allowing torture or CID to be used on detainees suspected of terrorist activity or connections. Government attorneys Bybee, Gonzales and Yoo did so by inventing a third category of persons — neither civilians nor enemy combatants — who they excluded from the protections of the law.

This legal "invention" -- and the appalling brutalities, including deaths from torture, that resulted from the Bush Administration's subsequent authorization of CIA- and contractor-administered "enhanced interrogation" (a true euphemism if there ever was one), has been damningly repudiated by Ray McGovern, a retired CIA officer and recipient of the Intelligence Commendation Medal.

The Ugly Price of Torture

Krauthammer also wrote dismissively of the anti-torture position of former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War hero who endured eight years of crippling torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. (His arms were so badly broken that he cannot raise them above chest level.)

Yet it is John McCain's intimate knowledge of the devastating effects of torture that has earned him the right to be heard. As Andrew Sullivan eloquently put it in his powerful article “The Abolition of Torture”:

Torture is the polar opposite of freedom…. When you break a human being, you turn him into something subhuman…. What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism.

So What Do We Do With Those Accused of Terrorist Acts?

Hooded and shackled detainee

Hooded and shackled detainee

There is no need to create a different legal category for terrorists in order to bring them to justice. Such cases can be prosecuted under either national or international criminal law.

As for the idea that terrorist crimes are somehow so terrible that they warrant different treatment, let's remember that there are many non-terrorist criminals whose acts of wanton murder, torture, rape, and the sexual exploitation of children for pornographic purposes traumatize individuals, families, and communities ― but we don’t put them in a different legal category.

After all, have you ever heard of a serial killer or sadistic child predator being tortured by the authorities for information (in the United States, at least)? You haven't — because in our legal system, human rights derive solely from being human, no matter how inhuman one's alleged crime. Moreover, in the U.S., one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

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Former military interrogator Matthew Alexander: "I don't torture because it doesn't work, is immoral and illegal, and violates my oath of office."

The ripple effects outward, over time, from torturer and tortured alike — on their families, associates and societies — are real. Nations such as the former Soviet Union (with its dark history of the Stalin era, the Gulag and the KGB), France (its treatment of Algerian resisters) and the United Kingdom (its treatment of Irish terrorists) are finding that collective guilt and trauma are not easily cast off.

All the arguments about so-called "ticking time bombs" and the necessity of torture to get The Intel We Need to Prevent the End of the World are mere excuses to vent our most dangerous emotions: fear, anger, pride, and the desire for vengeance. According to experienced interrogators, the best intel comes out of interrogations that are non-coercive. Yes, they take more time, but the results are reliable ― unlike those obtained through torture or CID.

As Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and one of the most successful U.S. interrogators of al-Qaeda operatives put it in a TIME Magazine article, there is no need for harsh interrogation methods. Soufan said that "... techniques like waterboarding don't work. 'When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them .... That means the information you're getting is useless.",8599,1893679,00.html#ixzz2WKTXy5GT

Photo of U.S. soldier and prisoner at Abu Ghraib, Iraq -- one of a number of similarly horrifying images that led to an investigation and court martials.

Photo of U.S. soldier and prisoner at Abu Ghraib, Iraq -- one of a number of similarly horrifying images that led to an investigation and court martials.

Will Our Choices Be Driven by Fear or Ethics?

In the end, the point is not what works and what doesn't but, rather, what is ethical and in line with internationally recognized — and legally codified — principles of human rights. The ends never justify the means when those means are dehumanizing to victims and perpetrators alike.

As Sullivan said, "We stand on the brink of an enormously important choice — one that is critical, morally as well as strategically, to get right."

It's time to take responsibility, as a nation, for what was done post-9/11, and insist that Congress act to return us to the rule of law, not the legacy of a panicked and autocratic Administration determined to have its way in spite of constitutionally mandated checks and balances.

Indeed, one of the continuing challenges for the U.S. in the 21st century will be to resist the descent into brutality that often follows global power and military might and, instead, to model a high ethic of the dignity and rights of every human being.

“Army Manual 2-22.3” (pdf download) in “FM 34-52 Intelligence Interrogation,” Wikipedia,

Alan Dershowitz, “Tortured Reasoning,” in Sanford Levinson (ed.) Torture: A Collection. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Tom Farer, Confronting Global Terrorism and American Neoconservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

"Fear Itself," The New York Times Online, May 6, 2010.

Alex Markels, “Will Terrorism Rewrite the Laws of War?” NPR, December 6, 2005,, accessed 5/16/10.

Jane Mayer, The Dark Side. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Richard Posner, “Torture, Terrorism, and Interrogation,” in Levinson (ed.) Torture: A Collection. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Andrew Sullivan, “The Abolition of Torture: Saving the United States from a totalitarian future,” The New Republic (December 19, 2005).

The Torture Papers, ed. Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel. Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Rod Martin Jr from Cebu, Philippines on November 20, 2013:

Carol, this is a powerful and thought-provoking piece. Thank you!

It amazes me that politicians can protect the nation of America by destroying its principles. They could just as easily be protecting Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or Pol Pot's Cambodia. It becomes merely ego and territory against all who would question their authority. It becomes selfishness incarnate.

If our objective is to protect the freedoms of America, then we cannot ethically do that by destroying those freedoms.

The crimes revealed by Bradley Manning led to his incarceration for revealing government crimes. So many whistleblowers have been punished for revealing the crimes of government officials. One DHS officer (Julia Davis) was brutalized and hounded by her own agency when she merely followed procedures which embarrassed her bosses for their incompetence. Mrs. Davis was protecting the nation, but ended up incurring its wrath, labeled as a "terrorist." Power in the hands of the insane is so easily abused, especially when the habit of "national security" blankets and hides all such crimes.

It seems, more than ever, that the real culprit is ego. Ego is selfish. But ego is also separate; it's okay to do evil things to "them" (whoever "they" are).

I was just reading in your reincarnation document earlier this evening. What you wrote there about the treatment of Nazi prisoners comes to mind. To many Germans, Hitler was a hero -- someone who had turned their country around and made it great after crushing defeat in the first Great War. I sense the same kind of crazed idolizing with Obama for his charisma after the Bush era. But Obama is every bit as sinister, shredding the Constitution, writing his own laws, bypassing Congress, murdering Americans and foreign children with drone strikes in countries for which no war was ever declared. The boundaries have been stripped away making all action fair game. Obama infamously said that all the Guantanamo prisoners should be kept their indefinitely (forever?), even if found innocent! Judge Andrew Napolitano couldn't believe an American president would ever stoop that low.

But I suspect that American presidents for the last half century have not been their own "men," so to speak. They've been puppets to the same puppet masters who pull the strings of corporations and the United Nations. I once thought of the UN as a bastion of sanity and goodness. I dreamed of a Star Trek future where humanity would sail the stars under a banner of a united humanity. After reading of the UN's Agenda 21, I dread ever having thought such things.

Ego is the "first" (arrogant) that will end up being "last" (humbled). Even while we struggle to protect our fellows from tyranny and abuse, we also need to forgive the tyrants so as to deprive them of their power and to establish spirit as the true force in the world.

Carol Hubbard (author) from Columbia, TN on August 02, 2013:

Thanks for your comment. So glad you specified that the ends never justify the means -- because ethics, not efficacy, should always rule. Like you, I'm appalled at the way so many seemingly normal people will blithely say we should use torture -- when they clearly have NO comprehension of what that is ... or will lead to.

Sooner28 on August 01, 2013:

Glad to see you speaking out on this.

Even if it did work, it wouldn't be justified, because the ends do not justify the means. Imagine how much we could learn about disease and human physiology of we took 10,000 healthy people at random (out of our 330 million), and just did science experiments like the Nazis did, just to see what we could learn.

The progress would probably be pretty good; in fact, we may even cure some diseases that still plague our species. But, this would not justify taking the action, because it would be so debasing to our humanity, the same way torture is.

What scares me is people feel okay (mostly conservative commentators and politicians, though liberal politicians probably agree and just don't say so) openly discussing the merits of torture and why we should, as a nation, do it on a regular basis. I have a lot of fear for the future of my country.

Great hub.

Crin Forbes from Michigan on June 21, 2013:

I got your point, however I think that it is difficult to make a point with an argument which can be debated.

The thing is that we like to think of ourselves as perfect, but we are far short of perfection. GW and his gang did not make it to the top on their own. There was this element among us who supported them and kept them there.

As far as Enlightenment goes, if you did not have in mind the philosophical concept, it would have been idea not to spell it as such.

I give all the credit for greatness to the people who designed this country, however I see a little hypocrisy in their behavior: they were slave owners after all.

We in America are good at good wishing, our actions suck!

There is this guy who had a big mind, but a petty personality who said: " Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember other may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself." (Richard Nixon - Farewell address to the White House staff.)

We lost because we are full of hatred... First there were the foreign prisoners of war that were tortured, now we have our own who are mistreated for leaking highly classified documents to certain media outlets. The guy in custody was really abused, but we don't talk about it.

My point: we were not better before 90/11, we were able to hide our true face better. We did not descent into "Brutality" after 9/11. We just stop hiding it!

Carol Hubbard (author) from Columbia, TN on June 20, 2013:

Thanks for your comments.

No, you don't need to speak about women -- since you aren't one (and I am -- misogynism will be addressed another time).

As far as your assertion that people of color are still not thought to be the equal of Caucasians -- I doubt Barack Obama would have won the popular vote (twice) if that were the case. Are there racists in this country? Certainly. But compared to what I remember from my childhood, and the "color blindness" that my children grew up with, we've made big strides. Now, on to more salient points ...

I wasn't speaking about "the" Enlightenment as a movement but, rather, "enlightenment" as the position the U.S. generally had in the world as a human rights leader and unique place of opportunity. (Also, our nation's formation was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, Judeo-Christian principles, the Reformation, the Magna Carta, and other similar documents.)

BTW, the caps below are not intended to be shouting but, rather, emphasized that way so that no one misses my points ...

My article was written to focus on the fact that either out-and-out torture or "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" (CID) of PRISONERS (not slaves, not women, not people in general) was always OFFICIALLY prohibited by American leaders from George Washington onward -- and codified in documents like the U.S. Army Manual and U.S. law. -- UNTIL the Bush Administration used loopholes found by certain Justice Department attorneys (who were assigned to do so) so that the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush triad would have "justification" for making torture and CID part of its active policy toward men and teenage boys detained in periodic sweeps during the early stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Detainees" are prisoners, regardless of how much legal gymnasts might like to get us to miss that point. Detainees also never stop being human beings, and so are covered by all international human rights treaties and (while on American soil), American law, also.

bplusbob on June 19, 2013:

I'm in total accord with many points here. I tend to believe that any behaviors fueled by fear and outrage are eventually regretted. America's overreaction to 9/11 will haunt and embarrass our descendants—provided our descendants are nurtured by and schooled in human decency.

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