Of Torture and the Problem of Good and Evil: Congressman Peter King’s Selective Memory Speaks for Many in Boston and Beyond

Waterboarding, sensory deprivation, beatings, and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” – are these viable and morally justifiable means to an end in the struggle against terrorism? Does a nation’s ongoing struggle against those who unleash terrorist attacks against civilians justify torture to stop such unbridled evil? A great many people I’ve spoken to in these parts agree with Long Island Congressman Peter King, whose answer is a strident “yes.”

In the afterglow of our nation’s rightful dispatch of Osama Bin Laden, defenders of former President George W. Bush, and of waterboarding, have crowed that torture culled the information to nail the terrorist, an assertion that is demonstrably false. And in making their case, torture’s defenders have ignored Senator John McCain’s denunciation of torture and his insistence that it played no role in the removal of Bin Laden. Apparently, those who have never undergone what McCain endured as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton think they know more than he on the subject.

So what does all this have to do with Irish Americans? Well, plenty, as the debate casts a disturbing light on the selective memory and historical amnesia of notable Irish American figures like Long Island Congressman Peter King, whom I have met and interviewed for the BIR. He is a forthright, smart, and decent man who has often risen above partisan rancor (see his scathing diatribe against fellow Republicans who voted against the “First Responders Bill” that was crafted to aid the heroes wracked with health woes from their work in the ruins of the Twin Towers, and his justifiable spleen at then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for the political manner in which she brought up the bill. Putting his conscience above party, he voted with the Democrats to pass the bill).

On the matter of 9/11 and homeland security, though, Rep. King has a blind spot – the very torture he decried when inflicted by the British on IRA prisoners and innocent citizen in the 1980s and early 90s is something he condones in our own battle against Al Qaeda.

Before anyone charges me with trying to liken the IRA and Al Qaeda, save the barbs: There is no legitimate comparison between the religious fanaticism driving Bin Laden and his minions and the desire for a single Ireland that drove the IRA. None. I agree with what King said to The New York Times: “Of comparisons between the terrorism of the IRA and that of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel. The fact is, the IRA. never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

The question then is simple: Is torture morally justifiable? As King continues to advocate and defend waterboarding by the United States, he tries to sidestep his staunch and fitting denunciations of British torture during the height of The Troubles when he was one of the fiercest supporters of the IRA in America. He rightfully decried the flagrant human rights violations – illegal imprisonment, torture, denial of counsel, and countless more – perpetrated upon Irish and Northern Irish prisoners in The Maze and other hellish prisons.

Now, he and many other Irish Americans and Americans as a whole defend Guantanamo with the same fire that they used to denounce The Maze. Again, it is a red herring to try to draw a comparison between Irish freedom fighters and Al Qaeda; torture and other abuses inflicted by the British Army, RUC, SAS, and other brutal arms of the Crown did not stop the IRA nor did they stop the peace process that thankfully and successfully evolved in the 1990s.

To Congressman King’s credit, he was a pivotal force in the peace process. He undoubtedly remembers that British and RUC torture of Irish prisoners was one of the best recruiting tools the IRA had ever received. But he seems to have a fuzzy memory when it comes to the fact that torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have proved a recruiting boon for Al Qaeda and other extremists.

The dilemma results from the very nature of torture, not from false arguments of moral equivalency. Subjecting human beings to torture and denying them any semblance of due process is either right or wrong. Torture’s defenders always trot out the “24-hour” bromide: What if a catastrophic terrorist attack is imminent and a prisoner with information won’t give it up any other way but through torture?” Peter King and many others would say, “Go for it.” John McCain would argue that prisoners under torture will say anything to make the pain stop.

King and others dismiss the expertise of CIA, FBI, and military interrogators who says that torture does not provide useful intelligence.

Many in the Irish-American community forget, or choose to forget, that British intelligence officers and interrogators and the RUC claimed that torture of Irish prisoners was a key tool in battling the IRA, that numerous “confessions” came under torture. I’d refer them again to John McCain, but why would they listen? Some are so morally bankrupt they suggest that McCain “cracked” under the torture he survived. My response to that is something that can’t be printed here.

I’m not sure if it’s ironic, but one of the most cogent dissections of torture’s uselessness came from Fox News contributor and commentator Juan Williams in a May 24 piece: “Torture did not help America find Bin Laden. That is the bottom line for history. But that is not the end of the debate. [John] McCain … a man who personally knows the horror and ineffectiveness of torture, refuted the claims [of Congressman King and George W. Bush administration officials].”

In a Washington Post op-ed piece, McCain made his case: “This is a moral debate. It is about who we are.”