We Abhor Torture: What of Our Enemies?

The first reason we do not approve of torture is out of respect for prisoners, even if they are guilty-even if they are heinous criminals. Timothy McVeigh was dispatched by lethal injection; the worst of the Nuremberg offenders were hanged. They were not torn apart by wild dogs.

This is a recent insight, and still far from universal. I trust everyone is sufficiently aware of the punishments routinely meted out to European and American heretics and rebels as late as the 18th century that I need not detail them; the Saudis stone adulteresses and chop off the hands of thieves to this day. Yet we now understand that a man is entitled not to have his body or his mind broken by torments, even if he must die. He may lose his life, not his identity.

The prisoners at Abu Ghraib seem not to have been mutilated; they have the full complement of limbs, and other protuberances. But that is not the only way to maim a man. Involuntary S&M rituals and compulsory circuit parties may do the job nearly as well, in the short run. We allow good cops and bad cops to confuse criminals, by way of extracting confessions or tips. How much more so when the tips might save the lives of American soldiers or innocent Iraqis from the next terrorist attack? But there is a line between tough interrogating and routine abuse for its own sake, and that was pretty clearly crossed at Abu Ghraib.

The second reason we do not approve of torture is out of respect for those in authority. Cops or soldiers who feel they can get away with anything become less and less good at the things they are supposed to do. Discipline goes, chaos reigns, and they become a law unto themselves. The frat-hazing/spring-break atmosphere of the Abu Ghraib photos and of some of the descriptions in the Taguba report- Lord of the Flies meets an Ecstasy party-shows order going out the window. Pvt. Lynndie England was as worthy of good leadership as Iraqi prisoners were worthy of civilized treatment. Her comrades and her superior officers failed her, even as she failed to do her duty.

The third reason not to approve torture, often cited in this case, is that it makes us look bad. But I wonder if that is a good reason? How much of the shock here and in Europe is true dismay, how much anti-war preening? Is the Arab world shocked, or resigned to business as usual? Which would be worse? Let us not probe the world of reactions, so falsely bright, so murky in fact. Do the right thing, and let the global audience draw what conclusions it will.

We have it on record now that the world is concerned with the rights of Iraqis, at least when they are violated by Americans. Can we extend our sympathy, even in retrospect, to occasions when Iraqis have been abused and murdered by Iraqis? Are the bodies and lives of brown people valuable enough to be protected from other brown people? Abu Ghraib was a prison throughout the quarter-century reign of Saddam Hussein, yet who knew its name? John F. Burns of The New York Times wrote a story about Saddam’s prisons, when the despot proclaimed an amnesty on the eve of the American attack. Yet competing media outlets, anxious to preserve their access, obligingly kept the lid on. Maybe the newfound notoriety of Abu Ghraib is the tribute that self-hatred pays to liberty. Torture is news in democracies because it is thought to be wrong.

Are the lives and well-being of brown people valuable enough to be protected from the machinations of people of all colors? This is the question raised by another Iraqi crime story, vast, intricate and years-long: the oil-for-food scam, which played out under the aegis of the United Nations from 1996 to 2003. Oil-for-food was a program set up, under the secretary-generalship of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to allow Saddam Hussein, who was blocked by U.N. sanctions from selling his oil freely on the world market, to sell it, under U.N. oversight, in return for humanitarian aid to his people. Iraqis could eat, but Saddam would not be able to go on a petroleum-funded rearmament spree-that was the goal. Kofi Annan, who helped negotiate the program, soon became U.N. secretary general himself.

The program became a huge enterprise, with over $100 billion flowing through its hands. Over a billion dollars of that went to the secretariat of the United Nations in fees for auditing and monitoring. That was on the up-and-up, though it did give the U.N. secretariat a powerful incentive to keep the program-and Saddam himself-going. But other billions appear to have been lost in kickbacks to Saddam and other forms of graft. How many we do not know, because journalists are only now on the trail. As Claudia Rosett, the reporter who owns the story, told Congress last month, “a billion or so in bribes … was treated as pocket change, or a rounding error.” Oil-for-food that became oil-for-Saddam (or for friends-of-Saddam) was deducted from the rations of ordinary Iraqis. How many hungered, sickened or died as a result? That we don’t know either, yet.

The oil-for-food story is about money and bureaucracy. It involves the United Nations, an institution protected from scrutiny by dullness and piety. And not one aspect of the story looks like something that could be shown on Jerry Springer. Small wonder it makes no splash.

Soon Iraqis will be taking responsibility for their own internal order. It will come first as a name, then gradually as a fact. The thugs and zealots who want prisons where no pictures are ever taken, and the defense secretaries who never testify about torture because torture is their policy, will redouble their efforts to hurt us, and their non-fascistic countrymen. We have to keep on. Torture is still the norm in the region, and many of the torturers, and aspirant torturers, wish us ill.