n most issues of the Washington Monthly, we favor articles that we hope will launch a debate. In this issue we seek to end one. The unifying message of the articles that follow is, simply, Stop. In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishinglydespite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraibwe remain one. As we go to press, President George W. Bush stands poised to veto a measure that would end all use of torture by the United States. His move, we suspect, will provoke only limited outcry. What once was shocking is now ordinary.
On paper, the list of practices declared legal by the Department of Justice for use on detainees in Guantanamo Bay and other locations has a somewhat bloodless qualitysleep deprivation, stress positions, forced standing, sensory deprivation, nudity, extremes of heat or cold. But such bland terms mask great suffering. Sleep deprivation eventually leads to hallucinations and psychosis. (Menachem Begin, former prime minister of Israel, experienced sleep deprivation at the hands of the KGB and would later assert that “anyone who has experienced this desire [to sleep] knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.”) Stress positions entail ordeals such as being shackled by the wrists, suspended from the ceiling, with arms spread out and feet barely touching the ground. Forced standing, a technique often used in North Korean prisons, involves remaining erect and completely still, producing an excruciating combination of physical and psychological pain, as ankles swell, blisters erupt on the skin, and, in time, kidneys break down. Sensory deprivationbeing deprived of sight, sound, and touchcan produce psychotic symptoms in as little as twenty-four hours. The agony of severe and prolonged exposure to temperature extremes and the humiliation of forced nudity speak for themselves.
Then there is waterboarding, a form of mock execution by drowning, a technique that has been used in so-called “black sites.” In addition to the physical pain and terror it induces, long-term psychological effects also haunt patientspanic attacks, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder. It has long been prosecuted as a crime of war. In our view, it still should be.
Ideally, the election in November would put an end to this debate, but we fear it won’t. John McCain, who for so long was one of the leading Republican opponents of the White House’s policy on torture, voted in February against making the CIA subject to the ban on “enhanced interrogation.” As for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, while both have come out strongly against torture, they seldom discuss the subject on the campaign trail. We fear that even a Democratic president might, under pressure from elements of the national security bureaucracy, carve out loopholes, possibly in secret, condoning some forms of torture.
Over the past decade, voters have had many legitimate worries: stagnant wages, corruption in Washington, terrorism, and a botched war in Iraq. But we believe that when Americans look back years from now, what will shame us most is that our country abandoned a bedrock principle of civilized nations: that torture is without exception wrong.
It is in the hopes of keeping the attention of the public, and that of our elected officials, on this subject that the writers of this collection of essays have put pen to paper. They include a former president, the speaker of the House, two former White House chiefs of staff, current and former senators, generals, admirals, intelligence officials, interrogators, and religious leaders. Some are Republicans, others are Democrats, and still others are neither. What they all agree on, however, is this: It was a profound moral and strategic mistake for the United States to abandon long-standing policies of humane treatment of enemy captives. We should return to the rule of law and cease all forms of torture, with no exceptions for any agency. And we should expect our presidential nominees to commit to this idea. The Editors