Terrorism and torture not new to America

By Adam Kotlarczyk

“Suppose a terrorist has hidden an atomic bomb on Manhattan Island which will detonate at noon on July 4,” wrote philosophy professor Michael Levin in his 1982 essay, “The Case for Torture.” Preferring death to failure, the hypothetical terrorist refuses to disclose the location of the bomb. Is the government justified then in using torture to try to prevent this future calamity?

Levin argued the government is. It should use torture to prevent “future evils.”

He makes a compelling argument, one our government has grappled with in recent weeks.

For those endorsing torture as a weapon in the war against terrorism, Vice President Dick Cheney has been an outspoken advocate. In an interview shortly after 9/11, he told NBC’s Tim Russert, “It’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”

President Bush seems to agree. “Our country is at war, and our government has the obligation to protect the American people,” he said recently. “There’s an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again.” Bush is right.

But here’s the thing.

This isn’t the first time an enemy has lurked, plotted and wanted to hurt America. Since our nation’s birth in 1776 until the early 19th century, the British were not big fans of America. Mexico was a little sore in the 1840s about that whole annexing-the-Southwestern-U.S. thing. Heck, in the 1860s, Americans wanted to hurt Americans. And the list, unfortunately, goes on.

Hearing this, Cheney or other torture supporters might point out how we’re faced with more insidious enemies – the type of extremist zealots who would fly suicide planes into buildings to kill Americans.

But even this America has faced before, as any history major – or anyone, like myself, with a grandparent who served in the Pacific Theater in WWII – can tell you.

America has overcome all these enemies without legally allowing torture.

Note the use of “legally.” In the wake of the Abu Ghraib photos, it would be naïve to think our government doesn’t already engage in these practices, legal or not. But for us legally to endorse them would be to abandon and betray the principles we’ve cherished and tried, through various means and with varied degrees of success, to spread throughout the world.

How could we ever again condemn the Gulag of Soviet socialism when we sentence our own prisoners to torture at undisclosed locations? How could we ever again criticize the practice of some South and Central American governments of “disappearing” political opponents when we do the same thing? How can we denounce and depose a Middle Eastern dictator for torturing people when we say it’s OK when we do it?

It’s telling that the strongest voice against Cheney comes from a member of his own party – Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain knows a thing or two about torture.

As a fighter pilot shot down over Vietnam in 1967, he was held prisoner in Hanoi for more than five years and tortured.

Yet it is McCain leading the charge against the legalization of torture. He has attached an amendment to a military spending bill; the amendment would prohibit “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of persons under custody or control of the United States government.”

Despite White House threats of a veto, the bill passed the Senate by a 90-9 margin and moved on to the House.

America has faced hate-filled enemies before. What has guided us and earned us respect across the world is not a win-at-any-cost approach, but a steady adherence to our ideals.

Previous generations, dating back to our founding fathers, had the strength and courage, in both victory and defeat, to stand by these principles.

Now a question is put before our generation, and will test whether we’ve inherited and will honor our noble legacy, or say instead that finally our enemies were too strong and changed who we are, and what we stand for.

Columns reflect the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Northern Star staff.