Getting Away with Torture

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Global Governance 11 (2005), 389–406

REVIEW ESSAY

Getting Away with Torture
Kenneth Roth
The Bush administration’s use of torture and inhumane treatment has undermined one of the most basic global standards governing how governments can treat people under their control. Contrary to the efforts of the administration to pass this abuse off as the spontaneous misconduct of a few low-level soldiers, ample evidence demonstrates that it reflects policy decisions taken at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Repairing the damage done to global standards will require acknowledging this policy role and launching a genuinely independent investigation to identify those responsible and hold them accountable. The creation of regulated exceptions to the absolute prohibition of torture and mistreatment, as suggested by several academics, will not redeem the tarnished reputation of the United States or restore the global standards that the Bush administration has so severely damaged. KEYWORDS: torture, Abu Ghraib, Guatánamo, interrogation, cruel treatment.

B’Tselem, “Legislation Allowing the Use of Physical Force and Mental Coercion in Interrogations by the General Security Service,” B’Tselem Position Paper, January 2000, 80 pp.
Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004), 592 pp.
Alan M. Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 288 pp.
Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, eds., The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (New York: Cambridge University Press,
2005), 1,284 pp.
Philip B. Heymann and Juliette N. Kayyem, Preserving Security and Democratic Freedoms in the War on Terrorism (Cambridge: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2004), 195 pp. Human Rights Watch, The Road to Abu Ghraib (New York: Human

Rights Watch, 2004), 37 pp.
Sanford Levinson, ed., Torture: A Collection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 328 pp. 389

390

Getting Away with Torture

ho would have thought it still necessary to debate the merits of torture? Sure, there are always some governments that torture, but they do it clandestinely. Torture is inherently shameful—something that, if practiced, is done in the shadows. In the system of international human rights law and institutions that has been constructed since World War II, there is no more basic prohibition than the ban on torture. Even the right to life admits exceptions, such as the killing of combatants allowed in wartime. But torture is forbidden unconditionally, whether in time of peace or war, whether at the local police precinct or in the face of a major security threat.

Yet, suddenly, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, torture and related mistreatment have become serious policy options for the United States. Academics are proposing ways to regulate the pain that can be inflicted on suspects in detention. Overly clever U.S. government lawyers have tried to define away laws against torture. The Bush administration claims latitude to abuse detainees that its predecessors would never have dared to contemplate. Washington’s new willingness to contemplate torture is not just theoretical. The abuse of prisoners has flourished in the gulag of offshore detention centers that the Bush administration now maintains in Guantánamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the secret dungeons where the U.S. government’s “disappeared” prisoners are held. Hidden from public scrutiny, shielded from legal accountability, the interrogators in these facilities have been allowed to flout the most basic rules for the decent and humane treatment of detainees.

Yet torture remains the despicable practice it has always been. It dehumanizes people by treating them as pawns to be manipulated through their pain. It harnesses the awesome power of the state and applies it to human beings at their most vulnerable....
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