Torture and American Culture Part 2: American Elites


Published: October 30, 2008

In part two of the forum “Torture and American Culture,” held at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), experts in legal, religious, military and psychological fields denounced torture and examined the ways in which their professions contributed to shaping American policies on interrogational torture.

William Treanor, dean and professor of law at Fordham’s School of Law, discussed the role played by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in redefining torture.

The OLC is the ultimate legal advisor to the executive branch and is supposed to be particularly conservative in what it allows the executive office to do, Treanor said.

However, in 2002 the White House sought ways to allow the CIA to conduct more aggressive interrogations. The White House asked the OLC to look into the legalities of such a move, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In August 2002, the OLC responded with a memorandum that became known as the “torture memo.” The memo was part legal defense and part reinterpretation of interrogational torture. In defining torture as “anything short of organ failure,” the memo broadened the scope of interrogational methods that could be used. It also advised that legal arguments which centered on “necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability” for the administration.

These new interpretations of torture were dangerous, according to Patrick Lang, retired army colonel and president of Global Resources Group. “Soldiers are supposed to kill people and destroy things in the service of their government. The duty of the leadership is to teach [soldiers] that they are an instrument of the state and to act in accordance with [established] codes,” Lang said. “In disrupting these codes…you break  down their self respect as human beings, you break down their sense of identity as Americans…”

The code, which defines behavior for soldiers and the subsequent punishment for violations, is known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

With a government that was willing to encourage “this kind of nonsense” and with some of the Army leadership all too eager to comply, things went “to hell in a hand basket very quickly,” Lang said.

As news of more questionable interrogation tactics emerged in 2005, members of the American Psychological Association (APA) asked how the APA’s ethics codes applied to members in military and national security roles, said Stephen Benke, a speaker at the forum who is the director of the ethics office of the APA.
In September, the APA defined its position by stating that “psychologists may not work in settings that violate international law or the U.S. constitution unless they are working directly with a detainee or for a third party concerned with human rights,” Behnke said.

The APA’s position on torture is not debatable, Behnke said. He continued, “Torture and abuse are always unethical and always prohibited. There is never justification for torture.”

The panel encouraged members of professions involved in framing the debate on torture to help prevent future abuses by being more transparent.

“People should know more about our Army, the struggles in the legal profession, the APA’s point of view [and] the religious stance [on torture],” said moderator Fredrick Wertz, professor of psychology at Fordham.

“I think we as citizens deserve to be more informed about both the limitations of what torture consists of, and how it is being used, if at all,” said Janine Repka, FCLC ’10.

Joel Rowe, FCLC ’09, said, “We wax over our policies with a gloss of necessity that makes us feel better about morally neglecting the rights of others for the ‘preservation’ of our state—our safety, ‘liberty’ and the way of life we, as Americans, have come to believe we’re entitled to. ”

Lang said that if the United States is ever to win back trust abroad, “The government must consider torture a crime. The lesson cannot be ‘[the government] got away with it.’”