Posted Tuesday, May 4, 2004, at 9:01 AM PT - The images from Abu Ghraib prison do not test one's convictions about the wrongness of torture. They test one's opinions about the wrongness of capital punishment. Just consider for a moment what this bunch of giggling sadists has done, with its happy snaps and recreational cruelties:

  • It has defiled one of the memorials of regime change. I was a visitor to Abu Ghraib last summer, and the stench of misery and evil was still palpable in those pits and cellars. It is as if British or American soldiers had not only executed German prisoners of war, but had force-marched them to Dachau in order to commit the atrocity.
  • It has been like a shot in the back to the many soldiers (active front-line duty, not safe-job prison guards) who were willing to take casualties rather than inflict them and who fought selectively and carefully. What are the chances of the next such soldier who is captured by some gang of Saddamists or Wahabbists or Khomeinists?
  • It seems, at least on its face, to have profaned the idea of women in the military. One does not have to concede anything to Islamist sexism in order to know what the impact of obscene female torturers will have in the wider society.

This is only the rehearsal for one's revulsion. One of two things must necessarily be true. Either these goons were acting on someone's authority, in which case there is a layer of mid- to high-level people who think that they are not bound by the laws and codes and standing orders. Or they were acting on their own authority, in which case they are the equivalent of mutineers, deserters, or traitors in the field. This is why one asks wistfully if there is no provision in the procedures of military justice for them to be taken out and shot.

Probably everyone has wondered what they might do—or might allow to be done—in the case of the "ticking bomb" and the stubborn terrorist detainee. At least when I saw the movie, Sean Connery in The Untouchables got a rousing cheer when he shot a corpse in the head, in the thick of combat, to convince a mobster that he was deadly serious. But no such excuse will conceivably do in this case. Junk videos made by mediocre pick-nose pornographers are evidence of a complete indifference to intelligence. Who is going to dare claim that a car bomb outside a school was thwarted by such tactics? One has to remember the crucial objection to torture in the first place. Moral considerations apply, as they must. But the vice of the torturer is that he or she produces confessions by definition. And soon, the whole business of confession has become polluted with falsity and madness. Even the medieval church was smart enough to work this out and to drop the practice.

Another objection is that the torturers very swiftly become a law unto themselves, a ghoulish class with a private system. It takes no time at all for them to spread their poison and to implicate others in what they have done, if only by coverup. And the next thing you know is that torture victims have to be secretly murdered so that the news doesn't leak. One might also mention that what has been done is not forgiven, or forgotten, for generations.

If anyone wanted to argue that torture is a matter of routine in many of the countries whose official media now express such shock, they would have to argue by way of double standards. This case would collapse at once and of its own weight if the standard was to become a single one, or if one torturer became an excuse for another. This point doesn't completely apply to the media themselves, who have yet to show the video execution of an Italian civilian kidnapped by Iraqi jihadists, or indeed many other lurid atrocities. But there's no hypocrisy in holding self-proclaimed liberators to a higher standard.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His book Blood, Class and Empire has just been republished in paperback.

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