". . . disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind . . ."
-- Preamble to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
10 December 1948

The nation has been abuzz for the past several days in the wake of the release of memos that discuss torture, also called "enhanced interrogation techniques," from members of the Bush administration. While pundits on the right have expressed outrage over the documents' entrance into the public sphere, pundits on the left have escalated the debate over whether or not the people and agencies involved in the behavior outlined in them deserve further investigation and possible prosecution. One side contends that waterboarding, a torture technique with a long history (see the woodcut from 1556 on the right), at least as practiced by agents of the United States, does not constitute torture. It is, they argue, a legal "enhanced interrogation technique." The opposition recalls that in
  • 1949, the U.S. brought charges of war crimes against Yukio Asano, a Japanese soldier, for waterboarding a U.S. civilian, and
  • that when the Khmer Rouge used the same technique on its own people, the United States considered it a method of torture, or
  • that an American soldier was court-martialed following the Washington Post's publication of a photo depicting his supervision of the waterboarding of a captured North Vietnamese soldier, and
  • that as recently as 1983, Texas Sheriff James Parker and three of his deputies were tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years in prison for using an "enhanced interrogation technique" to extract "confessions" from prisoners.
Perhaps a definition of torture can clear up the confusion between the two sides' positions.

On February 4, 1985, The United Nations Convention Against Torture established the definition for torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions" (I.1.1.). Under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, the United States of America became a signatory to the Convention on April 18, 1988. Considering that those on the right hold former President Reagan in such high regard, they should have no problem accepting a definition for which he applied his, and the nation's, stamp of approval. One might expect the opposition to the U.S. approved definition of the term to come from the left, but it hasn't. Much like former President Clinton's now infamous remark that "that depends on what your definition of is is," a question of semantics in which the right found a great deal of humor and hypocrisy, waterboarding as a method of torture or an "enhanced interrogation technique" has been reduced to little more than an issue of word choice.

But while the pundits in Washington, on both the right and the left, argue over a definition, the practice of torture in its many forms has taken a toll on members of our military. To wit, U.S. Soldier Killed Herself -- After Refusing to Take Part in Torture. What makes this young girl's story so tragic to me is that her action is the ultimate sacrifice made in defense of her beliefs. It's not that she was a Mormon girl who gave up her life rather than do something she felt was wrong that makes her death so tragic -- I don't think that her religion has anything at all to do with it; the tragedy for me is that this young warrior couldn't convince her fellow soldiers that what they were doing was wrong and failing to do that, she could think of no other way out of her ethical dilemma. In her case, and the cases of others like her, suicide is not the ultimate act of a coward; instead, it becomes the ultimate act of bravery, as these soldiers kill themselves to avoid becoming like the enemy while their fellow soldiers see nothing wrong in emulating enemy behavior. And that is just plain sad irrespective of the side of the political spectrum on which you sit.
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