Some would say that the very title of this post indicates the depravity to which our country has sunk: are we seriously, in 2005, discussing whether it’s all right for us to sanction torture of prisoners?
Others would say that it’s a post-9/11 world, and desperate times demand desperate measures.
“Thou shalt not torture” should be, in my opinion, about as close as there is to a moral absolute. I agree with Andrew Sullivan when he writes:
I draw the line at cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of people who are defenseless. And I draw the line at conflating the guilty with the innocent. Right now, we are crossing both lines – and severely damaging our cause because of it.
Admittedly, the prohibition on “degrading” treatment (contained in the Senate anti-torture bill sponsored by John McCain) could be construed broadly so as to prohibit even psychological techniques that do not cause physical pain. Perhaps that part of the bill needs some fine-tuning and clarification. But it simply won’t do to say that “we do not torture,” and then to say, in the next breath, that we can’t ban torture because it would tie our hands in extracting information.
A few things to ponder. First, torture reduces a human being (the one being tortured) to a subhuman level, when his existence is defined entirely by physical pain and suffering. Second, it degrades the torturer accordingly; and it creates the very real danger that at least some of the torturers will enjoy it, particularly if they have been primed to see the one being tortured as an evil person getting his just deserts. Never underestimate the dark corners in the human soul.
There is, of course, the classic “but what if we’ve captured a terrorist who knows the location of a nuclear bomb set to go off in a major city in 24 hours” scenario.
A) That’s unlikely as hell. B) Torture still might not get us any usefull information. C) If it somehow did, then there’s probably not a DA who would indict our torturer, and there’s certainly no jury that would convict.
I should note that (C) seems to invalidate the anti-torture argument, since it implies that it’s sort of okay to torture sometimes, and to get away with it. In practice, though, the deterrent would still exist, since any would-be torturer would know that if the torture doesn’t reveal any useful information, he (or she) is in major trouble.
By the way, let’s not forget what a “ticking time bomb” exemption would likely mean in practice. Let’s say that we do know that there’s a nuclear device planted in a major American city. How likely is it that in the panic, some innocent guy — maybe more than one — would get grabbed and tortured by mistake? And how likely is it that the list of acceptable circumstances for torture would broaden to include less extreme scenarios?
Also, let’s not forget that none of the prisoner abuse allegations so far has involved this kind of scenario. In fact, there’s absolutely no evidence that the “coercive interrogation” techniques some defend have produced any useful information at all.
And yet we have people defending torture; some openly, such a few commenters on Stephen Green’s thread, and some euphemistically such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which prefers to speak of “aggressive interrogations.” The Journal‘s editors would have us believe that such things as exposure to extreme heat or extreme cold, or even “waterboarding” (which induces a drowning sensation) are not really physical torture but “psychological techniques designed to break a detainee.”
Paradoxically, I think that for some people in what one might call the anti-anti-torture faction, this is a moral issue rather than a pragmatic one. They’re offended by what a few of Stephen Green’s commenters call “moral preening” on the part of those denouncing torture. They think the absolutist opposition to torture comes from weaklings who don’t have the fortitude to do what needs to be done, and who would rather allow a lot of innocents to die than dirty their hands (not literally, but by having nasty things done in their name).
In an excellent column at reason.com, Julian Sanchez makes an interesting point:
Even if we believe torture—or, if you prefer, “aggressive interrogation” that occasionally leaves the suspect a habeas corpse—is likely to produce useful intelligence rather than whatever story the questioner wants to hear; even if we believe that it is only ever used against the most vile; there is something odd about the rhetorical frame in which torture apologists operate. Implicit in many of their arguments is the notion that there’s something contemptibly fainthearted about those who want to hew to the principles of basic decency fit for a nation that styles itself primus inter pares of the world’s liberal democracies, even if foreswearing the most brutal tactics means accepting some additional risks. The apex of resolute manliness, on the other hand, consists in begging the government to dilute traditional liberties at home and ape our enemies’ barbarism abroad, if only we might feel a bit safer.
That said, some liberals probably exaggerate the extent to which the torture scandals are contributing to anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world. If the Abu Grahib debacle did not exist, the America-haters would no doubt have invented it. And I think that The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen fails to appreciate the irony when his Jordanian driver Bassam tells him how appalled he is by the abuse and degradation of Muslims at Abu Grahib and Guantanamo: far worse abuses, after all, are common under most Arab regimes. (Was Bassam equally appalled by Saddam Hussein’s atrocities?)
But while that should be an issue for Bassam, it should not be an issue for us. “We’re not as bad as Saddam Hussein” is hardly a standard to measure ourselves by.
Saying no to torture probably won’t make America-bashers love us any more. But it will certainl make things easier for America’s supporters around the world. And besides, this isn’t about being loved by our enemies or even our friends; it’s about respecting ourselves.