Waterboarding Our Sacred Rights

President Bush on Saturday vetoed a bill that would have explicitly
prohibited the CIA from "harsh interrogation" methods like
waterboarding, which makes bound prisoners feel they are drowning. CIA
Director, General Michael Haydn, publicly conceded for the first time
in February 2008 that the agency began using waterboarding in 2002 on
Al-Qaeda suspects with legal approval from the U.S. Department of
Justice. Also last month, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a
BBC radio interview, said it is "extraordinary" to assume that the
ban on cruel and unusual punishment in the Bill of Rights -- the
Constitution's Eighth Amendment -- also applied to "so-called"
torture.

But the history behind the Bill of Rights shows that rejecting cruel
torments of the body in whatever form is the most natural assumption to
be made.

The political and social movement for recognition of human rights began
in earnest in the second half of the 18th century, particularly with
the Jean Calas Affair in France (1760s): he was broken on the wheel and
waterboarded. The Italian politician Cesare Marquis de Beccaria,
commenting on the case, proposed making such "torments" of an
individual human being a measure of the "contempt of all mankind." In
The Invention of Human Rights, Lynn Hunt chronicles how the right to
protect the body from torment became the first human right accorded to
individuals.

Through the emotional reaction to their violation, human rights
became self-evident. This helped to define the concepts of
'individual' and 'humanity' for Enlightenment thinkers, including
Voltaire, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson. These concepts became
cornerstones of our moral culture, first inscribed in the Declaration
of Independence, then in the US Bill of Rights and the French
Declaration of the Rights of Man, and more recently in the United
Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Monotheism created the concept of humanity. Before it, people in one
culture did not consider those in other cultures as part of a single
human kind. However belonging to humanity guaranteed equal rights
before God only in Paradise, not on earth. For the religious orders of
the day, individual bodies could be butchered, burned at the stake,
disemboweled, drawn and quartered, and mutilated and tortured in public
spectacles. England only banned burning at the stake in 1790, a year
after France abolished all forms of judicial torture. These spectacles
were sacrificial displays of individual suffering that were meant to
repair the body politic that had been sinned against. The individual
sinner would not be reformed or rehabilitated but given over to the
crowd as an offering for the greater good. In countries that still
publicly administer beheadings, stoning to death, amputation of limbs,
flogging and other insults to the body and person, these practices do
not generate moral outrage but represent redemption. Hidden torture in
detention centers even lacks this redemptive quality.

Ideas of "self-evident," "natural" and "human" rights are anything but
inherently self-evident or natural. In the history of our species,
cannibalism, infanticide, slavery, racism, and subordination of women
were usually more "natural" and "self-evident," while "human" was
obscure. Institutionalized cannibalism and infanticide in remote
regions ended only in the last half century. Slavery was abolished in
Europe and America in the 19th century, lingering in lynchings through
America's Jim Crow South into the 1960s. It was only banned in Saudi
Arabia and Muscat in 1970, and still is practiced along the fringes of
the Sahara. Racism and subordination of women remain, of course, very
much a part of the modern world, although in many places they have
become less noxious than in the Stone Age.

In the second half of the 19th century, reactionary tribal nationalisms
arose that rejected many of the tentative advances in human rights. Two
world wars blunted these nationalist paroxysms, leaving a standoff
between two conceptions of humanity: one is based on individuals'
integrity and liberty; the other continues to sacrifice the individual
for the common good (as interpreted by an authoritarian leader). In
Humanity, a haunting book on the atrocities of the 20th century,
Jonathan Glover describes how Stalinism and Maoism dismissed human
rights as sniveling rotten liberalism: Sympathy was discredited:
mercy to the enemy was cruelty to the people. The means (sacrifice of
individuals) justified the end (the common good).

The Cold War posed an existential threat to our society and to
humanity: each side had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, capable
of annihilating major segments of one another's population. Nothing
remotely resembles this threat today. The wildest dreams of today's
terrorists go no further than one or two gun-type uranium bombs of one
to ten megatons. I have interviewed terrorists, and those who would be,
from remote jungle islands of Indonesia to the desert shores of
Morocco, in Pakistan and the Middle East. None have the means or
competence to acquire such a weapon, although some future terrorist
group different from any in existence today could. The worst-case
scenario entails many thousands dead, deaths, not millions or billions.
However horrid this scenario, it does not justify the hysterical
response of a cowered government whose security measures against
individuals exceed those of the Cold War.

What makes human rights increasingly self-evident is the changing
cultural conditions that cause us to empathize with individuals who are
at liberty to choose, think and prosper in their own right, independent
of any group or creed they may belong to. It is a measure of our
civilization's progress that makes us sensitive to human rights
violations, even in places that we can barely place on the map. Our
shared concept of humanity leads us to empathize with all decent
individuals, respecting their integrity as autonomous agents, as long
as those actions do not impinge on our right to do the same.

As part of this shared faith, we demand due process even for those who
harm the human rights of others. Yet, further progress is not
guaranteed. In times of national stress, without firm moral leadership,
we risk succumbing to the residual appeal of caveman revenge or the
summary justice of the Ancient Middle East (where an 'eye for an eye'
threatens to make the whole world blind). It takes conscious, sometimes
brave acts to resist the primal allure of expressing collective anger
by violating the sanctity of other individuals' bodies -- or of
becoming impassive as others violate bodies that we should see as the
homes of free-willed and free-thinking souls.

America is currently caught in a battle between the competing rhetorics
of homeland tribalism and of humanity grounded in our shared
monotheistic faith. Given our singular military and cultural power in
today's world, no less than the future of 250 years of human rights
development rests on how this internal American battle is resolved.
Americans sense that this is a fateful election for our republic; they
may not realize how important it is for the world as a whole. We are
playing our own part in a continuing struggle that first led to a
Declaration of Independence and then empowered those who fought for
human rights around the world.

The world is beginning to view our country not as a hope and home for
the free but through the lens that shot the infamous photos of Amercian
soldiers brutalizing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. As
one top U.S. General in the Multi National Force in Iraq recently told
me: We have turned around 180 degrees to show respect for any of the
detainees in our care: respect for the culture, for the religion and
for the history of the place where our compounds are. But what those
few did [at Abu Ghraib] will probably be the images best remembered of
this war for a hundred years from now. Reputation, like life itself,
is a complex affair that is difficult to sustain but simply to destroy.
Mr. Bush has further reduced the moral reputation of the presidency and
the country by allowing waterboarding and other harsh interrogation
methods. These violate the basic principles upon which the American
Republic was founded regarding the sanctity of the individual --
principles that have served as the template for all subsequent
elaborations of human rights around the globe.

Shortly before the end of the Civil War, a private in the 1st New York
artillery wrote in a letter home that the sacrifice of his friends who
"died fighting against cruelty and oppression" had been worth the
terrible price of what would be America's bloodiest war. A captain in
47th Ohio wrote to his ten-year old son that his absence from home to
fight the battles of our country would be meaningless unless "the
children growing up will be worthy of the rights that I trust will be
left for them." Jefferson and Lincoln believed that the rights for
which our nation fought were the rights of humanity -- that the "sacred
purpose" for which our nation came into being was to secure those
rights for all, even for those who are against us. We should ask no
less of our political leaders and appointees.