Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

As a species we have a particular talent for cruelty. I am not just talking about violence, because almost every animal species engages in that, and even a few plants do. No I am talking about violence for its own sake. I am talking about causing pain as an end to itself. Whether it is this inquisitor’s rack, the taskmaster’s lash or the cloth and water bucket of a modern torturer, we inflict horror on each other, or turn a blind eye to it, with a far too eager heart.

It could be worse. For centuries, for millenia really, it was worse. For most of human history it was a given that leaders had the moral right, if not the moral obligation, to brutalize law breakers, heretics and other worthy victims. That has changed over the past century. Sure we do not fight it with the vigor we should, but most people, everywhere in the world, do not accept that state of affairs anymore.

I suppose that is why America’s backsliding on this issue is so puzzling. Not that we had been perfect on it before, when you think of the years of misery heaped upon African slaves it is hard to argue that we did not accept torture in America in the past. However the state at least made a real effort to condemn torture on the part of any of its actors, which was almost unheard of up to that point in history.

Now we actually have a debate as to whether waterboarding is torture. Fortunately our current commander-in-chief thinks so. Whoever his opponent is (unless it is Romney, who will have to take a poll) will unfortunately disagree. I cannot believe we have gotten to this place. Waterboarding was considered torture and criminal when the Japanese did it WWII. How we can go back on that attitude now, when our country has had such a rightfully proud history of rejecting torture (again, individual actors’ behaviors, including those of Presidents, have varied) when it is burned into the collective psyche of the global community that it is wrong, when otherwise as a species we have come so far is baffling.

On a final, and somewhat tangential note, it is easy to see how some can see this Article as being rather vague. How does one define “inhuman” or “degrading.” It may be easy for folks to say that a criminal deserves a certain amount of degradation. I beg to differ. I think that mentality appeals to the worst of our own nature. In my preferred worst case scenario, legitimate criminals are merely warehoused, safely and humanely, away from the rest of society where they can do no harm, specifically so they can do no harm, not for punishment. Best case scenario we actually make a real attempt to rehabilitate them. To do otherwise would be a disservice to ourselves and prove why we need Article 5 so desperately.

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