Alex Massie

Bush: Damn Right, We Torture

Text settings

And so here it is: the final confirmation of something we've long known - the Bush administration's apparently enthusiastic embrace of torture. George W Bush's memoir (£) is merely the final confirmation of this. No-one need trouble themselves pretending that the United States does not torture (at least some of) its prisoners. Nor is there any need to dance daintily around the question of what is and what is not torture. Not when the former President of the United States boasts about it.  Should Khalid Sheikh Mohammed be waterboarded? "Damn right" says President George W Bush.

They knew they were torturing prisoners and they didn't care. Indeed, that was the point of the exercise. According to Bush:

Of the thousands of terrorists we captured in the years after 9/11, about a hundred were placed into the CIA program. About a third of those were questioned using enhanced techniques. Three were waterboarded.

is itself an indication that it's both torture and an unreliable way of producing reliable information

Then there's this remarkable passage, in which Bush appears to imply that waterboarding Abu Zubaydah did him a favour:

Zubaydah later explained why he started answering questions again. His understanding of Islam was that he had to resist only up to a certain point. Waterboarding was the technique that allowed him to reach that threshold, fulfil his religious duty, then cooperate.

See: even terrorists can see the point of the measure! It's win-win! We learn what they know and they can talk without dishonouring themselves! Really, this is the sort of thing one expects from some tin-pot African madman or the Khmer Rouge or any number of other ghastly regimes.

Just as significant, however, is the attempt to suggest that only three prisoners were tortured and that waterboarding is the only "technique" that's a matter of any controversy. But this is not so. It's an attempt to have it both ways: if you think waterboarding is torture then fine but, look, we only waterboarded three guys and they were the really bad ones. What's a little torture between friends  -especially if it saves friends' lives?

But waterboarding was not the only torture technique used by the CIA. As we've discussed before sleep deprivation - especially when used in combination with other "techniques" - most definitely counts as torture. By concentrating on the (reasonably rare) uses of waterboarding, Bush shifts attention from the much more widespread use of torture sanctioned by his administration. (For more, much more, on this you should read Jane Mayer's The Dark Side.)

Again: the test is not a difficult one. If a captured British soldier or airman were subjected to this kind of treatment would we believe that he had been tortured. I hazard we would.

Bush's argument, in the end, is that torture "works." So what's the big deal? Sometimes, depending on your definition of "work" it probably does. That doesn't make it right. People who are tortured will say anything to make it stop. Some of what they say may be useful; much of it will not be. That doesn't mean torture doesn't "work" because plainly it can produce useful and even vital information; but it's a long leap from there to proposing that interrogators are helpless unless they're allowed to torture their prisoners.

UPDATE: See Norm for more. Heresy Corner also has an excellent post that is well worth your time. And so does Charlotte Gore.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietytorture