Torture has been in the news again.
On Tuesday, the Senate committee released its report on the CIA’s use of torture, and mass media has been abuzz with its findings ever since. After September 11, this is a recurring topic for us, and it is not just news, or some discussion or even a debate. Like an infected sore that will not heal, torture erupts in the American culture every so often with pain and pus of revelations and accusations, resentments, name-calling, and vitriol, nauseating not because any of it is really new but because time and denial make us forget how agonizing it felt the last time.
The cycle has come around. Torture is in the news again. “Enhanced interrogation” they call it – enhanced by growing, excruciating pain and never-ending terror, and by soul-crushing despair. By shame and slow loss of humanity, and by dissolution, bit by bit, of every sure thing of life we know as sanity. By feeling utterly alone. By every day in hell lasting forever.
We have done this to our prisoners for years, in the name of this nation’s security. And now we ask ourselves if we should have and if we should again.
Our debate about torture is a little like the debate about abortion: neither side thinks it’s a good thing, but some believe it can be justified in some cases, and others believe it never is. Some call it a necessary evil, others, a crime against humanity. And we holler and yell at each other, each side trying to save the America we love – but what bothers me is that I think we are basing this debate on the wrong question.
More often than not, something like this takes place during the conversation:
Opponent: Torturing a defenseless prisoner is against every convention! It destroys not only his humanity but ours. It negates every gain we’ve made in what we like to call a “civilized” world.
Defender: And while you’re wrestling with your noble principles, imagine you have in custody a terrorist who knows where a dirty bomb or a small pox container is set to release in New York City, with only hours to spare. He is a murderer with no regard for innocent life, about to inflict a disaster the magnitude of which we haven’t even seen. Tell me you wouldn’t do anything you can to get this information, and tell me it wouldn’t be worth it!
Opponent: I refuse to deal in hypotheticals, but I know an absolute wrong when I see one. Besides, it’s been shown that torture does not tend to produce reliable intelligence.
Defender: Nonsense. It produces plenty of intelligence, and it’s prevented multiple terror acts on the U.S. soil after 9/11.
I’ve heard this discussion multiple times, from rationally academic to rabidly hostile, and almost every time it ends up boiling down to the efficacy of torture. This question of efficacy is impossible to get away from. Even John McCain, speaking on the Senate floor, brought it up before addressing his principal objections to torture. It is as though this were the crux of the issue:
The defenders of it are saying “We don’t like to do it, but we have to because it works.”
The opponents of it are saying “We’re against it on principle, but hey, you don’t have to do it because it doesn’t work!”
This argument will never help us. It takes us away from the real argument. This is a losing argument for both sides because the statistics work for the opponents but logic works for the defenders. Torture may rarely produce actionable intelligence, which means that people will say anything to make the torture stop, but it doesn’t mean they’ll say the truth. Still, “rarely” is not “never,” and when it comes to preventing another 9/11, even once is an incentive enough to do anything – anything at all, maybe – to get at a possible truth.
When we ask ourselves if we were right to torture our prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and if we should do it again, efficacy of torture cannot help us decide.
Let us say that torture leads to the truth.
Let us say that torture produces this “actionable intelligence.”
Let us assume that torture is effective. If we torture our prisoners, strip them naked and chain them to the floor in a refrigerator, humiliate them and blast noises into their ears for days without sleep, drive them insane with pain and fear, drown and revive them time after time after time, make them understand that no help will ever come – if we break our prisoners completely, then those who know something will tell us what they know.
Let us assume that, and then decide.