Legitimizing Torture

Bad Arguments for a Dangerous Policy

In October, at the urging of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to place restrictions on interrogation techniques employed by the Department of Defense. The McCain Amendment, which was added to a defense appropriations bill, would bar the “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of prisoners in U.S. custody. Though McCain’s proposal primarily reaffirms the standards of the existing War Crimes Act (not to mention the United States’ treaty obligations), the vote does represent something of an admonition of the current administration.

Unfortunately, its impact may be entirely symbolic. To become law, the bill would still need to pass the House, and President George W. Bush has threatened to veto it, if it does. Moreover, Vice President Dick Cheney is pressing Congress to exempt the CIA from the legislation.

The administration’s intransigence suggests that it remains committed to fighting the “war on terror” by any means, including torturing prisoners. Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee summarized the justification for this stance in an August 2002 Justice Department memo. The Bybee memo, noting Al Qaeda’s apparent intention to procure weapons of mass destruction, posited a situation in which a detainee might possess information concerning an impending and calamitous attack on the United States. Would we not be obligated to use coercion to get...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (Soft Skull Press, 2004) and American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (South End Press).