Torture and other human lunacies

Humanity is baffling. Sometimes I think our species has a streak of madness. People are friendly, cooperative, kind, even selfless — yet they also can inflict hideous cruelties on each other.

During the 1990s Muslim upheaval in Algeria, armed men shot high school girls in the face for not wearing veils, and cut the throats of instructors for teaching boys and girls in the same classroom.

“Ethnic cleansing” was the policy of Orthodox Serbs as they systematically killed Muslim Bosnians during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Late-night death squads of the sort once notorious in Central America now prowl “liberated” Iraq. Nearly 1,100 back-alley executions occurred in Baghdad during April alone, President Jalal Talabani says.

“Honor killings” of young women by male relatives occur constantly in Asia and the Mideast. Other savagery abounds.

Don’t forget the Cambodian genocide and the supreme example of cruelty, the Nazi Holocaust.

How can people — cordial, gregarious, sympathetic humans — do this to each other?

Today, I’m to participate in a 1 p.m. panel discussion on torture at New River Community College in Lewisburg. I hope the other panelists can explain why torture has been part of the human record for many centuries, because I can’t.

In 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorized the Holy Inquisition to employ torture to detect unorthodox believers among the faithful. Dominican priests presided over dungeons filled with fiendish pain machines, and sent thousands to the stake.

Torture almost always produces confessions. During the witch hunts, as accusers applied red-hot irons, shrieking women hastily confessed to copulating with Satan, changing into animals at night, flying through the sky, blighting crops, and the like. Then they were killed for this proof of their guilt.

The Enlightenment slowly changed Western attitudes. Voltaire and other radical thinkers clamored for human rights.

America’s founders adopted Enlightenment values by declaring in the Bill of Rights (Eighth Amendment) that “cruel and unusual punishments” shall not be inflicted.

Since then, the world community has signed several solemn treaties outlawing abuse of detainees. The Geneva Conventions, ratified by America in 1955, ban “mutilation, cruel treatment and torture … outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” Protocol I, added to the conventions in 1977, outlaws “torture of all kinds, whether physical or mental… corporal punishment … and any form of indecent assault.”

America ratified the global Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, among various international treaties.

The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 incorporated the foreign agreements into U.S. law.

Despite all this, something dismal occurred: Secret semi-torture became an American policy under the Bush administration. U.S. stockades in Iraq and Cuba employed the very “outrages upon personal dignity … humiliating and degrading treatment” that America had pledged to shun.

The USA and Torture

The record shows that America has both promoted and used torture, that the US government has fought against international anti-torture conventions, and that the USA in fact consistently violates international rules and conventions on a whole range of human rights issues.

White House lawyers privately twisted language in attempts to prove that treaties weren’t violated when U.S. interrogators stripped prisoners naked, forced them to stand for hours in painful positions, kept them awake with screaming music, half-strangled them by “waterboarding,” and so forth.

Last week, Amnesty International said 34 detainees died under such U.S. interrogation.

“Most of the torture and ill-treatment stemmed directly from officially sanctioned procedures and policies, including interrogation techniques approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,” the human rights group said.

Last year, America witnessed a bizarre spectacle: President Bush threatened to veto congressional attempts to reduce abuse of prisoners. But Sen. John McCain — who was tortured as a POW in Vietnam — shoved through a bill forbidding American personnel to participate in “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” Humiliated, the White House accepted the new law. But Bush pulled a slick one, attaching a “signing statement” saying he reserves the right to evade this law.

Amid all the cruelty and horrors in the world, why doesn’t the White House aim for higher values? People everywhere intuitively know that torture is evil. America should stand for the humane aspect of humanity, not the ugly aspect.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Charleston Gazette, USA
May 15, 2006
James A. Haught, Editor, Charleston Gazette

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday May 15, 2006.
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