Juan Méndez, former first adviser to Kofi Annan on the prevention of genocide, peered over his glasses at a packed auditorium at the University of Michigan. He had been tortured long ago under Argentinean totalitarianism. In a voice hardened by time, he slowed his speech when saying one word: abolish. We were here to discuss the abolition of torture, much like the abolition of slavery. It is inevitable. It is humane. It is, above all else, moral.
I couldn’t disagree. Torture. I played with the word a while. As it bounced around my mind, I was more worried about definitional semantics than the reality within and outside our borders. I won’t lie. I spaced out from the talk. I had deaf ears. Then, Professor Mendez hit me hard with: “Our culture is soft on the prohibition of torture, we have impunity towards torture.” Uh-oh. That was just me, and that is the problem.
Zing words: pre-9/11, post-9/11 society, the Patriot Act, advanced interrogation techniques. “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Taken,” “24,” “Homeland,” etcetera, etcetera. The list of entertainment torture goes on. The take-home message from these works is simple: torture gets stuff done to keep America safe or is a cruel means to heroic ends. At least that’s how we rationalize it. But, ultimately, those who support torture are motivated by bottom-line, vengeful thinking. We all still have that bitter taste in our mouths from Sept. 11, 2001. We all know exactly where we were and what we were doing, and we want those terrorists to know what they put us through.
Still, even if passion causes us to abandon principle, we are forced to concede that the effectiveness of torture treads a fine line. The ends do not justify the means if we might not reach our ends at all. To stop the pain, “breaking points” become too often lies, false incriminations and cold leads. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded time and again until he was broken. And yet the “information” he gave us led us on false trails, on goose hunts for made-up names. He had known nothing.
We must also be humble and recognize that torture is not within our common experience. Why not listen to those who have actually been tortured — are they not most worthy of an opinion? Maybe that’s why John McCain, who is otherwise an unapologetic war hawk and once promised to occupy Iraq for 100 years, has been so outspoken against the atrocities committed in Guantanamo. John McCain has been tortured. Professor Mendez has been tortured.
I, on the other hand, have only seen Liam Neeson electrocute human traffickers to find his daughter. I have seen Jack Bauer pump excruciating serum through his victims’ veins to stop a nuclear bomb from exploding in L.A. I have seen Navy SEALs waterboard to get impossibly important information in the hunt for Bin Laden.
Anti-terror torture entertainment is on the rise, says Emily Clews, a student with E-International Relations, and it is far from the truth in portraying the practice’s successes. According to Clews, anti-terror entertainment torture is fictionalized, glorified and has had an important effect on American attitudes. It numbs us.
This winter, The New York Times commented on the Senate Intelligence Committee report done on the C.I.A. They found that in the name of democracy and national security, there was minimal disclosure of true C.I.A. torture practices and zero accountability for clear violations of international law on torture as of 2014.
I am not talking about censoring Liam Neeson. That’s un-American. My call to action is to act upon what Cesare Beccaria realized so long ago in the 18th century. There is no glory or heroism in torture. We can go back and forth for days on its effectiveness, whether or not it protects us and how necessary it is. Torture is wrong. That is where the conversation should begin and end. It is a matter of principle, and we should hold ourselves to the ideals of our founders and the ideals of Beccaria. And no matter how much Jack Bauer’s C.T.U. might numb us to those ideals, they are eternal.
While I was furiously taking notes during Professor Mendez’s lecture, he lamented a sad but important truth: “All the facts about torture are forgotten in one episode of ‘Homeland’ or ‘24.’ ” But the vision of him, there, speaking to us, an auditorium full of smart, motivated young minds, reminded me that we are the New Abolitionists. Our mission starts with being well informed.
Gabriel Lupu is an LSA senior.