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How far are we willing to push prisoners?



Published: Wed, January 26, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Dallas Morning News: "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it!" -- Col. Nathan Jessep, "A Few Good Men"

The famous courtroom outburst from Jack Nicholson in the film "A Few Good Men" is a classic defense of "ends-justify-the-means" morality. The fictional Jessep, on military trial for complicity in a soldier's beating death, argues that the society that counts on the security he provides had better take care in judging him.

We were thinking about Col. Jessep in the wake of the conviction of Spc. Charles Graner, recently found guilty of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and sentenced to 10 years behind bars. The verdict was just, the punishment condign, and, thus, many of us may think this puts the question of U.S. abuse and torture of detainees to rest.

Wrong. We have no right to scapegoat Spc. Graner. There are far too many questions left unanswered about U.S. policy on physical abuse of these prisoners. There are reams of documents -- official investigations, a Red Cross report, internal government papers made public thanks to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit -- showing that cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners was more widespread than initially believed.

What is known

We know now that some detainees were beaten, some were raped, some burned, choked, urinated on, forced to face mock execution, shocked with electricity, sodomized with a police stick, sexually humiliated ... the list goes on.

We know, too, that the White House adopted what might charitably be called an expansive view of the limits of physical coercion. President Bush has said that he does not condone torture, but much depends on the definition of the word. When does necessary roughness become torture -- and do our interrogators know and respect the distinction?

More important: Does it matter to the American people that they do? If not, then Col. Jessep is right, and there is no moral limit to what might be done to human beings in the name of security. So much for the sanctity of moral values.

In the film, Nathan Jessep goes down, because our sense of justice does not grant the right to do lawless evil so that good might come of it. If that's what Americans really believe, and not just Hollywood make-believe, we are shamefully reticent to show our troubled consciences.




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