“The ancient Greeks would have been ashamed of us.”
That was the assessment of Amnesty International USA’s former executive director William Schulz of the U.S. military’s abuses of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.
Schulz said that Greeks and Romans routinely tortured slaves as a way to establish the truth of a situation and that torture was used so widely that they would have been surprised that just two-thirds of the world’s nations today practice torture. Still, he said, the abuses at Abu Ghraib were perpetrated not to find truth, but to humiliate the inmates there.
Schulz provided an overview of torture’s history and its impact during a brown-bag lunch Friday (March 2) in the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Taubman Center. The event, “The Phenomenon of Torture,” was sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
Carr Center director Sarah Sewall said the event is the first in a series to be sponsored by the center that will explore the legal, political, and moral questions brought up by the American government’s policies on torture.
Sewall said that Schulz, who served as Amnesty International USA’s director from 1994 to 2006, is very familiar with the practice of torture in the world today and with a wide variety of other human rights issues.
“Fundamentally, Bill’s call is to engage us in vigilance against [sliding down] the slippery slope,” Sewall said.
Schulz, who spoke for about 40 minutes, humanized the experience of both the tortured and the torturer through the use of real examples, such as the Afghan mujahedeen’s practice of strapping live prisoners to corpses and leaving them to die and rot in the sun, George Washington ordering soldiers flogged almost to death, and the water torture of Filipinos by American soldiers during the Philippine-American War.
Schulz said that torturers are made, not born. And, though some people undoubtedly would rather die than torture another, most torturers are “the average Joe, and occasionally the average Jane.” Some believe the ability to hurt one another is an essential human trait, perhaps conferring an evolutionary advantage by allowing people to better protect their families.
In the post-9/11 world, the feeling of national powerlessness against a shadowy enemy, coupled with the dehumanizing of terrorists, Schulz said, created a situation in which the use of torture could grow.
“If the procurement of information is of high value to your superiors and you are sanctioned from any punishment and you are not trained, … it’s a very simple thing to move from mistreatment to torture,” Schulz said.
The legal distinction between torture and other methods that may fall short of the definition are meaningless, Schulz said, because the international Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment covers other actions as well.
Schulz said the often-cited case of the “ticking time bomb” where information has to be extracted from a suspect quickly to save lives is far more complex than it seems at first. The scenario, Schulz said, raises a series of questions: What if authorities aren’t sure the person has the needed information? Can they torture him or her then? How sure do they have to be? What if they think one person in nine has the information but they’re not sure who? Can they torture all nine? What if they were sure the suspect would talk if his 2-year-old child were tortured? Would that be acceptable? How is it different if a whole city is threatened versus one person? What if the torturing itself causes retribution and does greater damage than the act it seeks to prevent?
“There’s no way to know the moral good will outweigh the actual damage that torture does,” Schulz said.
Some experts dispute whether torture is even necessary, Schulz said, with the FBI saying it has great success using deception and other techniques to build a relationship with a prisoner and get him or her to talk.
Schulz said we should continue to push back against the acceptability of torture by closing legal loopholes and removing the official sanction of torture.