This week, the world’s media has been rocked by a Senate report detailing the CIA’s links to the torture of detainees. It has now been made clear that their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ allowed for horrors such as rectal rehydration and waterboarding. Allegations of such practices are nothing new, but the Senate’s report provides absolute clarity on the matter. Now that Washington’s worst kept secret is truly out in the open, what are we to make of these revelations?
Firstly, it’s important to consider the timing of the report and the potentially significant electoral implications. Barack Obama’s popularity ratings have plunged new depths in recent months and, with the Republican victory in this year’s mid-terms, the Democrats are undoubtedly on the back foot. The Senate’s report could change things. The findings are scandalous and beyond embarrassing for the American government but there is no doubt that the fallout casts a darker shadow on the Republicans. It is Bush’s White House, not Obama’s that is associated with the war on terror. Globally, the focus has been entirely on the accusations of torture but, domestically, casting blame is perhaps more important. The Senate’s report could remind the American public what it was they voted out in 2008 and slow the seemingly inevitable Republican charge on the 2016 election.
The report’s findings are controversial and politically important but there are also extremely significant ethical considerations. Allegations of torture are met with near-universal disdain in the western world and the reaction to this report has been no different. We are instinctively repulsed by the idea of torture but it is sometimes necessary to question why. The term ‘collateral damage’ could be deemed equally repulsive but it is not. Drone strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed thousands of innocent women and children while taking out strategic targets since the outbreak of the so-called war on terror. This is deemed acceptable by politicians and military leaders alike as an unfortunate consequence of modern warfare. This is certainly thought-provoking. We live in a society where the torture of known terrorists and mass murderers is totally unacceptable but the indiscriminate death of innocents is deemed unavoidable and necessary.
Would torture be acceptable in a scenario where a terrorist refuses to disclose information about a bomb-threat that risks the lives of thousands of children at school? Most people’s answer would be yes, assuming it was the last resort. Admittedly, this is an easy point to make as it is a hypothetical situation unlikely to be a reality. Nevertheless, it shows that our view on torture is, in many respects, directly contradictory to conventional and accepted thinking on modern warfare. This is not an endorsement of the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ but it does highlight the ethical inconsistencies of the debate.
The fallout from this report will undoubtedly be significant. It could undermine the diplomatic position of the United States in the eyes of many nations, particularly in the Middle East. Domestically, it could have unwanted connotations and bring up bad memories for the Republicans and even provide a valuable reprise for the struggling Democrats. More fundamentally, the report makes us question the ethics of our very civilization. Although disturbing and indeed distressing, doubt of this kind is often healthy. The future is uncertain but the fact that we are asking these kind of questions at all is surely a step in the right direction.
Image Rights; Walt Jabsco