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American Torture

An Overview of American Torture in the War on Terror


Torture is barbaric, dehumanizing, ineffective, and condemned by both U.S. and international human rights law. So why is the Bush administration practicing it?
Forced Standing at Abu Ghraib

Side view of Satar Jabar, an accused carjacker who was tortured at Abu Ghraib Prison in 2003. Jabar was hooded, placed on a box with wires attached to his fingers and genitals, and told that he would be electrocuted if he stepped off the box.

Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Torture After 9/11

After the September 11th attacks, television and op-ed pundits immediately started calling for an end to existing U.S. human rights and civil liberties standards. Perhaps most famously, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz called for the use of court-ordered "torture warrants." Although the Bush administration did not immediately state a willingness to use torture, it would begin to quietly do so.

American Torture Techniques

If you're an American president who wants to promote a pro-torture policy, there are two rules you must follow. First, call it something else. Second, don't leave a mark. The Bush administration's torture policies follow these rules admirably.

Extraordinary Rendition

Outsourcing isn't just for sweatshop labor anymore. President Bush continued a policy, initiated by President Clinton (see item #3), in which the United States could have torture practiced on prisoners without actually violating U.S. law. It's very simple, really: Ship a prisoner off in the dead of night to an allied country where torture is practiced, ask that the prisoner be interrogated but don't ask how, and then collect any information that is gathered as a result of those unspecified interrogation methods.

Is Torture Justified?

The most common argument used to defend the use of torture is that it saves lives. Torture advocates frequently email me asking: Whose side are you on, anyway? Do you want to see Americans killed by terrorists whose schemes might have been revealed under use of torture? No, I don't, but we need to ask ourselves what kind of country we're trying to save. If we're going to argue that we need to sacrifice things like free speech, privacy, prohibitions against torture, and so forth, all in the name of safety--to transform, in other words, into something more like a dictatorship--then proponents should, at the very least, be able to demonstrate that the drastic measures they're screaming for actually work more effectively and often than current measures. In the case of torture, they can't--because it doesn't. Torture is an excellent way to alienate potential informants and generate false leads, but has never been shown to reliably extract useful information.
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