Skip to content
Who's in the Video

Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman is a Distinguished University Professor in the Philosophy Department of Georgetown University. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College, her PhD from Harvard, and her MLitt from[…]

The military ethicist believes Abu Ghraib represented an ethical breakdown “from the top down.” But have things changed under Obama?

Question: Whom do yournblame for the ethical breakdown at Abu Ghraib?

rnrn

Nancy Sherman: Irnthink it was a breakdown from high up, breakdown from the top down.  There were attempts, we know, from therntorture memos that came from the Office of Legal Council, Jay Bybee and rnJohnrnYoo, to figure out ways that we could permissibly, legally, torture by rnsomernother name.  And it was throughrnCheney and through President Bush that there really was an attempt to dorn this. And it trickled down.  So, therernwere commanders who gave permission, or turned their head. rn And we also used forces in interrogationrnthat weren’t fully trained.  Somernof them had been in other environments and they were told to kind of getrncreative.  And also there is arnfeeling of lack of respect for the enemy. rnOnce you degrade the enemy to just being a thing, all bets are rnoff as tornwhat you can do to them.  And as myrnyoung interrogators told me, the temptation to get information out of rnsomeonernwho you’re—when you get so frustrated and it’s been days and days and rndays andrnyou’re not making any breakthroughs and you know that there may be some rnhighrnintelligence that may be gathered. rnYou run the risk of harming this person, of doing something you rnoughtrnnot to do.  

rnrn

And in his case, he said there was a moment where rnhe saw arnfellow U.S. officer, who was a woman, a woman pilot who had been mangledrn by thernenemy, and that really got his ire up, and he really wanted to do rnsomething tornbe able to prevent that kind of incident in the future.  Andrn that’s when he knew that hisrnconscience really in high gear, hold back.  That’srn the temptation you have to be prepared to fightrnagainst. 

rnrn

And I don’t think—that’s a very reflective, rnconscientious,rnvery humanistic interrogator.  Notrnall are like that.  I went tornGuantanamo as part of the medical observer team, not a physician, but wern werernlooking at psychiatric and psychological conditions of the detainees rnfrom thernside of care and also from the side of interrogation and also for hungerrnstrikers.  And there was an attemptrnto even then when they wanted to bring an observer team out to ask us torn try tornfind a legal loophole for separating the kinds of professionals, thernpsychologists who were involved in the interrogation from the kind ofrnpsychiatrists clinicians involved in treatment.  Andrn if the one is involved in an interrogation never do the treatment,rnthen maybe they could be a little bit more aggressive or don’t have to rnworryrnabout the same restrictions as the ones on the treating side.  And that, you could already see, that’srna way of eroding the responsibilities we have to the care of the rndetainees whornwere supposed to be treated as if they were American forces when they rnare inrnPOW situations.

rnrn

Question: What ethicalrnloopholes still need to be closed in the war on terror? 

rnrn

Nancy Sherman: Ohrnwell, the legal situation is very complicated.  Asrn you know, Eric Holder is really, the Attorney General, is fraught and rnthere’s lots of internal debates in the Obama Administrationrnthat I can’t begin to chronicle about whether there are military rntribunals orrncivilian sorts of tribunals and where to have the trials, as you know, rnNew Yorkrnor other places, and who should be released and who not. rn But there is certainly a commitment, Irnbelieve, to efficiently closing Guantanamo, and also a sense that rntorture is a)rnwe know it’s not effective, it’s not instrumental.  Itrn does not get you the information you want.  And rnb) it’s just flat out wrong.  And so there is thatrn recognition Irnthink.  How it gets played out,rnespecially when you have TV programs like “24” making it very real, or rnmakingrnthe notion of “no holds barred” in interrogation, that’s really rough. 

rnrn

And I know cadets at West Point and my young rninterrogatorrnwatch these in amusement and voyeurism and whatnot, but I also know thatrn thernSuperintendent, or the Commandant of West Point have gone out to speak rnto thernproducer of this program and say, this isn’t how it works, we don’t wantrn thisrnpropaganda, you’re really making it harder for us because these aren’t rnthernrules that we are telling to abide by. rnAnd so that’s really tricky. rnSo, it certainly an awful education that we’ve had to go through,rn but Irnthink we’re coming out of it.