Is it Safe?: Torture American-Style

In the movie Marathon Man, there’s a famous sequence where the Nazi war criminal (played by Laurence Olivier) uses dental tools on Dustin Hoffman’s mouth to torture him into answering the code question “Is it safe?”  I remember the movie from my youth, as well as movies like The Deer Hunter, which shows America’s enemies using torture techniques on American prisoners of war — played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage.  In The Deer Hunter, the captors force the three Americans to play Russian Roulette and punish the soldiers by putting them in an underwater cage full of live rats and dead bodies.

Watching these movies as a kid, these torture techniques were things that our enemies did.  Americans do not torture.  If we adopt the techniques of the bad guys, then there is no longer a difference between us and them.

Torture has been in the news lately because of the release of former Pres. George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points.  In it, he describes how when the CIA asked him whether he would support waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammad, he responded, “Damn right!”  Former Vice-President Cheney has stated he is a “big supporter” of waterboarding.

Waterboarding is torture in violation of international law.  But what about when government officials feel the country is in danger and it is necessary?

Pres. Obama has been criticized for his failure to investigate and prosecute the Americans who used torture techniques.  I understand his aversion to opening up a partisan fight.  Some claim, though, that the failure to pursue the perpetrators leaves a precedent for future presidents that torture techniques will be tolerated.

There’s an old joke about a man who goes to a woman and asks, “Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?”

The woman thinks for a few minutes, and responds, “Sure.”

Then the man asks, “Will you sleep with me for ten dollars?”

The woman says, “Certainly not!  What kind of woman do you think I am?”

The man responds, “We’ve already established that.  Now we’re just negotiating on a price.”

The joke reminds me of our attitudes about torture.  You’re either for it or against it, and then it’s just negotiating when to use it.  Nobody advocates torture for jaywalking.  If you’re for it, it’s for the extreme situations.  So you can’t rid yourself of the responsibility by saying “I only advocate it for certain situations.”  You’re pro-torture or anti-torture.  That part is simple.

Unfortunately, the line about what my country does and tolerates is not as simple as I believed when I was a kid watching movies.

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