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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 11th, 2008 - 23:40:09

Torture harms both victim and perpetrator
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 12, 2008, 00:38

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There's one thing consistent in the character of US President George W. Bush. He's predictable. Why am I not surprised that he vetoed a bill approved by Congress to outlaw waterboarding. After all, this is the man who rubber-stamped Guantanamo, manipulated the Geneva Conventions, turned his back on the International Criminal Court and whose military minions allowed the obscenities of Abu Ghraib to take place.

By refusing to abide by the wishes of House and Senate members, Bush declares he is a law unto himself. Hardly an example of the sort of the democracy he wants to export. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy has declared the veto one of the most "shameful acts" of the Bush presidency.

Naturally, the president always has an excuse for ignoring appeals from decent Americans and his allies to bring back the respect for human rights for which the US was once internationally acclaimed. "Banning waterboarding from the CIA's scope would remove 'one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror'," he says.

Based on that line of thinking, why stop at drowning? If waterboarding is that effective surely gouging out a person's eye, tearing out his toenails or smashing his fingers would be even more so. How about arresting the suspect's entire family, like the Israelis do, before tearing down the family house? That would bring results, wouldn't it?

Waterboarding is torture. Make no mistake. When US National Intelligence Chief Mike McConnell was asked during his Senate confirmation hearing whether waterboarding constituted torture, he said it "would be torture" if it were applied to him and labelled it "repugnant." However, he stopped short of pronouncing it torture, which translated means it's acceptable as long as it's inflicted upon somebody else.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has confirmed, "No member of the US military is allowed to do it, period." The FBI and other internal intelligence agencies have rejected it as being either "unnecessary" or "counterproductive," according to The New York Times. But let's put aside the moral niceties for a moment, as well as our instinctive revulsion that a state that considers itself the bastion of human rights would stoop so low. The fact is not only does torturing a person not work, any confessions extracted by its use are not accepted as evidence in most courts of law. There is substantial research to support this contention but think about it for a moment.

If you were jailed, humiliated, stripped naked, made to contort and hold your body in painful stress positions for hours, and were then held under water to the point of near death, you'd say anything to end the horror, wouldn't you. And you would probably sign any confession put in front of you even if you were entirely innocent. You might even swear that you bumped into Elvis on a number 30 bus last week or went partying in Cancun with Osama Bin Laden.

Secondly, if the American head of state supports the torture of foreign detainees then what's preventing other countries from adopting a similar line and torturing Americans? Now that wouldn't go down very well in Washington would it? The Pentagon threw a fit when early in the Iraq war captured US soldiers were shown on Iraqi television drinking tea, the poor lambs.

Lastly, torture doesn't only harm its intended victim it also harms the torturer. An experiment conducted in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, found that most ordinary people would carry out acts that conflicted with their conscience when ordered to do so by a person in authority.

Inspired by the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Milgram designed his simulated torture experiments to discover whether Eichmann's accomplices were inherently evil or were merely following his orders.

The results were astonishing. Torture not only damages the tortured it unleashes the primeval dark side of the torturer.

Former US Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis would, no doubt, agree with Milgram's findings. A multilingual, well-educated and cultured young man, he joined the Army in 2001 as a translator.

In January 2004, he was posted to Abu Ghraib and assigned to special projects team set up to investigate high value detainees. Lagouranis was deeply troubled by the abuses he was forced to witness at Abu Ghraib and, later on, in Fallujah. Eventually he blew the whistle but "Not once did I hear of any arrests as a result of an abuse report," he said.

Lagouranis was later to tell the Chicago Reader, "I saw barbaric traits begin to seep out of me and other good respectable people . . . good Americans who never should have been put in that position to begin with. They have two choices -- disobey direct orders or become monsters. It's a lonely road when everyone else is taking the other one."

Torture robs society of its humanity, ruins lives, scars souls and is a noneffective means to an end. Those who support it should be made to endure it. Perhaps then they'll experience a change of heart; then again, perhaps not. Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, who was tortured by the Vietnamese for five years and spent his life campaigning against torture, actually voted against the bill and supports Bush's veto.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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