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Can cruel treatment of enemy prisoners be justified?

A Senate report released earlier this month offered unprecedented details about the treatment of enemy combatants in the war on terror. The report has renewed debates about CIA secrecy, Congressional oversight and the justifications for harsh interrogation methods.

The debate is fundamentally about how we are heeding the call to preserve basic American values, law and ethics.

Advocates for the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA argue that the program was vetted with multiple legal opinions and that combatants cannot claim the types of Constitutional rights enjoyed by American citizens. They argue that the techniques used the force necessary to produce valuable intelligence that ultimately saved American lives. Former vice president Dick Cheney, in an interview with Fox News, said, “I think what needed to be done was done. I think we were perfectly justified in doing it. And I'd do it again in a minute."

Others have insisted that enhanced interrogation is just a euphemism for torture. They claim that the inhumane treatment of detainees is both illegal under international law and morally wrong by American standards. They accuse the CIA of arguing that the ends justify the means. Sen. John McCain, who experienced torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said, “"the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights."

The Revolutionary War had its share of atrocities, but torture was not commonly discussed. Suspected spies received interrogations, but a swift execution was more the practice.

Still, there were concerns about human rights. Many captured soldiers died on prison ships in conditions that would certainly qualify as tortuous.

In 1777, George Washington issued orders that his soldiers treat British prisoners of war humanely. Wrote Washington: “Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.”

Washington did not hesitate, however, to demand strong measures be taken against escaped slaves who fought against his Continental Army. Southern slaveholders feared slave revolts at least as much as Americans today fear terrorist attacks. When Virginia’s last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, offered to free any slaves willing to join the British forces, Washington worried that Dunmore’s “strength will increase as a snow ball by rolling; and faster, if some expedient cannot be hit upon to convince the slaves and servants of the impotency of his designs.” Even after the Revolution was won, Washington continued to press the British for the return of escaped slaves.

In many ways, Washington’s treatment of slaves was not comparable to the torture of terrorists. Washington’s 1799 will freed all the enslaved people he held under his own name, and when he treated slaves harshly it was presumably to punish them rather than to elicit information. And escaping slavery was certainly not the same as terrorism; most Americans today would support the former and condemn the latter. Nonetheless, Washington and his fellow patriots faced the same question we do today: How ought we to treat enemies we consider a danger to our safety?

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