Torture: The Great American Export

Regardless of how the United Kingdom or the United States frame the story, the settlement reached Monday night between the U.K.’s government and 16 erstwhile Guantanamo detainees is objectively a mea culpa. In July, Prime Minister David Cameron promised an investigation of possible torture and abuse of prisoners by British officers at the U.S. military base, and British Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said the probe could not begin until these settlements were made.

Among the men compensated, many had pursued civil claims, arguing that, as reported by BBC News, “London knew or was complicit in their treatment in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.” Though the British government denies that the settlements — the details of which will remain confidential — amount to an admission of guilt, it’s difficult to see the payout as anything else.

That conclusion is arguably still more justified by reports, coming to light just before Cameron’s July announcement, that former P.M. Tony Blair “was aware of the existence of [the government’s] secret interrogation policy.” More, even, than accenting blemishes on the visage of the “War on Terror,” already widely perceived as farce, the settlement undercuts the legitimacy of the state on a broader, more general level.

In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, we think of ourselves as civilized, the enlightened beneficiaries of a highly developed, “free” society. But with all of the self-congratulatory allusions to the oxymoron “civilized warfare” and international humanitarian law, the United States and its minion states continue to flout perhaps the most important barometer of civilization. How a society reckons torture — whether it is tolerated or to what degree — seems as good a measure as any of where that society falls on the civilization continuum.

By that standard, the so-called Land of the Free belongs among the most culturally antediluvian societies: Torture goes not only unpunished but actively hidden and protected. “[S]ome of the Obama administration’s biggest legal victories,” observed a recent New York Times editorial, “have come in shielding Bush-era officials by getting lawsuits brought by victims with credible claims of kidnapping and torture thrown out of court on specious secrecy grounds, without any testimony being heard.” Torture, as the epitome of heinous violence, is the natural and logical conclusion of the veneration of aggression that statism really is.

Instead of regarding torture as aberrant within the statist social configuration, a deviation from an otherwise open society of laws, we ought to acknowledge it as the inevitable denouement of a system that, across the board, takes violence as its means. For every problem faced by human beings, without exception, coercion is the state’s proposed solution; individuals are treated as disposable.

As argued by Dr. Ben O’Neill, consistent advocacy for peace through the nonaggression principle requires opposition to more than just “full-scale military conflict.” Just as important to our reverence of the individual and of voluntary society is a clear, principled stand against the disgusting practice of torture, which — in addition to being inhumane — foments hatred for Americans around the world.

The victims of American torture, much of which is conducted at the Guantanamo prison President Obama vowed to shut down, have been denied access to any kind of justice or due process. The result is a shame on our judicial system, isolating the United States from the basic dictates of accountability and from the rest of the world, which — even for all of its own cruel inhumanity — at least feels some need to make some gestures against torture.

For a United States completely insusceptible to humanitarian pleas, the norm becomes practices like extraordinary rendition, a process whereby “suspected terrorists” are shipped to countries that torture and interrogate under U.S. direction. “History’s most important lesson,” wrote Yale law professor John H. Langbein, “is that it has not been possible to make coercion compatible with truth.”

But that is exactly what the state attempts with torture and indeed with all of its actions. It is based on the idea, contradicted by every passage of human history, that corralling people into this or that box, stealing from them, and killing them is the best way to deal with society’s problems.

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