Thirty-six American airmen, shot from the sky during the Korean War, falsely confessed to a vast plot to bomb civilian targets. How did this happen? The airmen were subjected to something new: touchless torture. They were kept isolated from all human contact, apart from their interrogators. One prisoner spent 10 months in solitary confinement, another 13. Schwable did not learn of the armistice until after he confessed.
They were made to stand or sit in awkward and painful positions for hours at a time. One prisoner had to sit at attention on the edge of a stool for 15 hours per day for 33 days. Another time he had to stand for 30 consecutive hours, until he collapsed. Schwable was required to sit at attention every day for almost 10 weeks.
They were demeaned, taunted and treated like animals. Schwable said the guards "growled" or "barked" at him, slopped food at him, and made him defecate in public. "Every effort was made to degrade and humiliate me," he said.
...At last, exhausted and demoralized, their resistance overcome, they confessed. They all confessed in the end. And they all lied.
Maj. William Harris later tried to explain to an incredulous public how he could falsely accuse his country of something so barbaric as a conspiracy to bomb civilians, especially if he wasn't "tortured." "They don't have to lay a hand on you to make you the most miserable person in the world," he said. "I would rather take a beating any day than be subjected to their type of questioning and treatment."
There are two claims at the heart of this "conservative" belief that torture and coerced interrogation of alleged terrorists should be legal. One, that such techniques work. They obviously did not in this instance, and and there is very little evidence that torture is reliable or effective in eliciting valuable information. Two, that every person we have ever taken into custody in the "war on terror" is a terrorist whose reprehensible actions exempt him from the moral proscription against torture. This is false, obviously false, so false that it cannot even be argued with (of course, conservatives may simply be okay with torturing innocent Arabs or Muslims because...well, they're not Americans, but that's another blost post.)
The conservative who otherwise considers himself a moral being, brings himself to advocate torture by feats of mental agility and trickery. First, are the two concerns above, ignored or reduced in importance in the torture calculation. But the conservative must accomplish one more trick before he can accept that America is a nation of legalized torture; he must distinguish America from the likes of the dictatorial N.Korean regime. To do this, he looks for the ways in which our torture is different from their torture; we're a democracy, not a tyranny. We don't practice torture routinely, on a large scale. We're torturing terrorists, not innocent soldiers.
But the plain truth of the matter is that by legalizing torture, we have put ourselves in the same category as the worst human rights abusers in the world. It's not that the scale and purpose of torture don't matter; they do. But they don't matter enough. Torture is still torture, and you either are willing to commit or you aren't. We are, and we're willing to not only to commit it but to legalize it, to give our leaders the Orwellian power even to define what torture is, even though we know it's not reliable, even though we know that we've certainly tortured innocent men. That's enough for the world to condemn us, and rightly so.