By Arthur H. Gunther III
Just months after World War II ended in August 1945, the Nuremberg trials began with impressive agreement among four of the Allied nations that those who commit atrocities in war are to be held accountable, that “following orders” is no excuse. Pity that such unanimity against horror — war is the ultimate “atrocity” — did not prevent the world conflict in the first place, the one that came after World War I, “the war to end all wars,” but such is the politics, often of convenience, among countries. Yet it can be said the Nuremberg trials of the Axis Powers participants were a moral watershed. Pity, again, though — and again for the rationale of “convenience” — that the 1945 moral purpose is now tainted by the U.S. in its deliberate sanctioning of sophisticated torture by CIA operatives and associates in the name of preventing terrorism.
That the operatives are also free of any crime since they were “following orders” is an insult to those men and women, children, Holocaust victims and civilians who lost their lives or suffered physical and emotional trauma during World War II. That horrible time owed surviving humanity a higher moral plain, and the Nuremberg trials set the stage. Pity, again, that a key actor left the stage and marched into the same shadows of rationalization to justify the end, by whatever means. Civilization is not civilized if such thinking endures. And torture is just that, be it by megalomaniacs or those “defending” democracy. There is no democracy if it is tainted.
A key principle at Nuremberg was that following orders — or even interpreting orders that results in torture and depravity — does not wash. The Nazis were guilty of ordering, encouraging, enabling “war crimes,” or as the charter establishing the “International Military Tribunal” stated in part: “War Crimes: namely … murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war … .”
Following that reasoning, torture, which surely includes water-boarding, threats to kill detainees’ relatives and mock executions, all cited in the recent Senate report on CIA operations involving suspected terrorists since 9/11, is inhumane, is criminal.
While this is not new controversy — the U.S. Justice Department had investigated for some years and said it had insufficient evidence to convict anyone — a democracy employing such interrogation is guilty of ignoring human rights in the name of protecting same, a moral impossibility.
There will be some — many, perhaps, who conclude that avoiding future mass attacks on this soil justifies obtaining information no matter the means. Others, perhaps purists, including myself, contend that either you are a democracy and adhere to its humane principles or you are not. I do not want my flag saved by mock executions or shocking someone standing in water. I would rather fight — even die — to save that flag, with other “citizen soldiers.” Even die but keeping values intact to the finish.
To what end, this torture? The information gained is necessarily suspect given the way it was obtained. And the $300 million or so spent in the CIA interrogations was squandered while Detroit went bankrupt, while our middle class was (is) losing jobs, when there was so much need to assist Americans.
The Founding Fathers believed in universal rights, in human dignity, that the government later defined by Lincoln as that “of the people, for the people, by the people” must be directed by the people, that it cannot behave as it pleases. Our recent government has done just that, and with utter shame. What price democracy?
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.