Sunday, December 26, 2010

Torture, Truth and Nukes

Torture, Truth and Nukes

Winslow Myers

June 2009

Torture produces lies not truth. Victims say anything to get the pain to stop, and then the powerful use such false confessions to justify war—which leads to more torture. This vicious cycle was masterfully clarified by Jonathan Schell in his article “Torture and Truth” in The Nation (, making the case that we cannot afford to move on from Bush-era torture policies without a moral or legal accounting more exacting than what President Obama has so far advocated.

But behind our unashamed justifications of torture looms the larger context that has been Schell’s area of expertise since his book “The Fate of the Earth” was published back in 1982—the moral implications of nuclear weaponry. Looking back from 2009 the landscape of nuclear policy in the era of Soviet-American rivalry looks positively Edenic in its simplicity. In our own time the combination of sheer destructive power, concealable size, and potential availability of nuclear weaponry throws our leaders into fits of helplessness. The deterrence formerly provided by our nuclear bombers, missiles and submarines has become obsolete. Infinite military power has been rendered helpless against stealth. This then becomes the true context for the “normalization” of torture—that it is more than justified if it helps prevent a terrorist from setting off a suitcase nuke in one of our cities. Down the slippery slope we slide: since any enemy combatant might have information about terrorist nuclear intentions, we must torture them all without mercy.

To move beyond such helplessness, we (“we” being both any “us” and any “them” on the planet, including extremists who might like to obliterate a city) must begin by admitting that neither the breaking of a single human spirit by torture nor the nuclear annihilation of millions will resolve any conflict anywhere. The destructive force of weapons of mass destruction is so great that after the fact there would be no meaningful moral difference between a terrorist using one deliberately, a government doing the same, or even an accidental detonation. All those killed would be equally dead. On the micro-level of torture, the moral prohibition is equally inclusive. Torture, like the use of nukes, is not only repugnant but also absurdly purposeless.

President Obama, facing a series of converging challenges, is understandably reluctant to indict former officials for war crimes. Under the wise supervision of Bishop Tutu, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission enabled South Africa to emerge from the horrors of apartheid by means of public and dramatic recitations of truth from both victims and perpetrators of racist violence. Perhaps that model, as both Senator Leahy and the economist Paul Krugman have suggested, has something to offer us. It is hard to see how we can build a solid future as a nation of laws without some process that applies the light of truth to an epidemic of secret lawlessness.

But any such commission cannot even begin to pay the truth debt coming due if we are to ensure a future for the world’s children. Einstein nailed it way back in 1945 in his telegram to Roosevelt: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” The ultimate intention behind both torture and the use of weapons of mass destruction is an old mode of thinking: the attempt to stamp out what “we” or “they” perceive as an evil mind-set. But as Solzhenitsyn wrote, the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart.

Deterrence and torture are both about affecting hearts and minds: they are based on a belief that even if we cannot exterminate our adversaries, we can at least make them fear our power. The only way forward is also about affecting hearts and minds, with the opposite of the obsolete policies of deterrence and torture—with powerful initiatives based upon a new “mode of thinking”: the non-violent resolution of all conflicts based on global self-interest. And that’s the


Winslow Myers, a retired teacher, writes on global issues. He serves on the Board of Directors of Beyond War, an educational foundation, and is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.”

Winslow Myers

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