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Why President Bush Should Have Vetoed Waterboarding

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Over the weekend President Bush vetoed a bill that would have banned the CIA from using “waterboarding” and other coercive interrogation techniques to extract information from suspected terrorists.

The president may have done the right thing in rejecting the bill as proposed, but his explanation for the veto was shallow and his failure to propose a modified, realistic bill that would still ban all forms of torture should be cause for great concern.

The implication is that in extreme cases torture may be necessary, and therefore good for America.

The president has insisted his disagreement with the bill is not “over any particular interrogation technique, for instance, it is not over waterboarding” (note that the president now seems to agree with most everyone else that waterboarding is indeed torture). Instead, he says he rejected the bill because it would have limited interrogation to the 19 methods already spelled out in the Army Field Manual, available to anyone with internet access. He says these public methods are insufficient for hardened terrorists who have been trained to resist them.

But the president’s assertion that this isn’t really about waterboarding, while doggedly refusing to take waterboarding off the table of military options, comes across as duplicitous rhetoric. Having reviewed his recent explanations, both to Congress and to the nation, it seems to me the president’s intentions are very good and that his philosophy, on this point, is very bad. He wants to protect America (very good) and at all cost (very bad). As a country, can we ever afford to lose our soul?

Yes, good intentions. In his radio address to the nation on Saturday he said “our intelligence community believes that Al Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland” were it not for the current CIA program that allows for “specialized interrogation procedures to question a small number of the most dangerous terrorists under careful supervision.”

But, bad philosophy! President Bush has referred to these specialized procedures as “efficient,” “necessary,” “legal,” and “safe.” The problem here is that none of his adjectives get to the heart of what’s wrong with torture. Efficiency and necessity are purely pragmatic concepts. Under their banner, the world has witnessed every sort of evil. And legality and safety are equally unconvincing justifications. Does making something legal make it right? And safety? The twisted suggestion that some torture is safe obfuscates the horrid nature of torture, a degradation of human dignity and liberty.

The president’s caveat that these techniques will be reserved only for a “small number of the most dangerous terrorists” is of little comfort. In effect, he is saying, “Don’t worry, America, your local police station will not be allowed to torture — that would be wrong. Rest assured, under my watch only the federal government is allowed to do this, and only when it sees fit — that would be right. Trust me. Trust us.”

We should never trust anyone’s judgment that evil can sometimes be good. Torture, like rape and other intrinsic evils, is always wrong. The international community, following a long tradition of ethical reasoning, and having witnessed the tragic consequences of Machiavellian alternatives, has defined torture and condemned it universally. In the 1987 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, torture is defined as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third party information or a confession…” Aware of the strong temptation to excuse ourselves from this prohibition under extreme circumstances, the same declaration (ratified by the United States) went on to clarify, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

On many accounts President George W. Bush has been an outspoken defender of the inherent dignity of the human person. Like few presidents before him, he has outlined a philosophy for the defense of human life at every stage. He has even made politically inconvenient decisions to hold true to these beliefs. In all of this, he should be praised. But when it comes to defining torture and rejecting every one of its forms, it seems President Bush is so immersed in the fight, he is unable to see the long-term danger of a short-term, un-American, unethical fix.

The final words of the president’s Saturday radio address were directed to members of Congress: “We have no higher responsibility than stopping terrorist attacks.” I would like to think the president, in retrospect, would qualify his statement by saying part of the paramount responsibility of national defense is making sure America never corrodes from within by losing her soul.

Even more dangerous than a hardened terrorist is a future America where evil is enshrined in law.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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P.S. I’m sorry for the absence last week. Refreshed now, and back at it. As always, I look forward to your comments.


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