There's No Good Argument for Torture

Woodcut of waterboarding from middle agesIn the days after 9/11, it was argued that we had to have the PATRIOT ACT, because if we'd had it already, it would've prevented 9/11. Leaving aside the fact that we already had info on the coming catastrophe and that Bush ignored it, it was never a particularly good argument. A lot of measures would've prevented 9/11, including putting every single civilian -- native-born or immigrant -- in the United States in prison. Had everyone been in prison that day, the World Trade Center would still be standing.

Clearly, there is a line. There's a point at which we can go too far in protecting ourselves. Despite even former Bush administration officials' rhetoric, no one -- not even themselves -- would really argue that the government gets to go to any length to protect Americans. We all accept that there is a limit. That's why the reaction to 9/11 wasn't to outlaw aircraft.

Still, the "it would've prevented 9/11" argument ignored the fact that less drastic measures than those in the PATRIOT ACT probably would've done the same. When you've got people in flight schools who aren't interested in learning how to land, you don't really need to build a giant database to arrange randomly collected recorded conversations into statistical data sets. What you do is check out those guys in the flight schools and see what's up with that whole "I don't want to land" thing. When you've got people you suspect of criminal activity, you do police work. You don't need a jackhammer to drive a nail and it's ridiculous to argue otherwise.

Ditto for torture. President Obama's Director of National Intelligence, former Admiral Dennis Blair, wrote a memo to his staff that the right is diving on to justify the Bush administration's torture policy. In doing so, they're being extremely selective, quoting the memo as saying, "High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa'ida organization that was attacking this country."

See? Torture works. If we didn't torture people, there would've been another terrorist attack. Liberals have egg on their faces -- hating torture is the same as hating America.

But the truth is that the memo doesn't say that torture was justified. In fact, it argues that it was unnecessary. Blair wrote that he "also strongly supported the president when he declared that we would no longer use enhanced interrogation techniques. We do not need these techniques to keep America safe.

"The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

This take backs up FBI Director Robert Mueller's assessment of torture. In December of 2008, Mueller was interviewed by Vanity Fair:

I ask Mueller: So far as he is aware, have any attacks on America been disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through what the administration still calls "enhanced techniques"?

"I'm really reluctant to answer that," Mueller says. He pauses, looks at an aide, and then says quietly, declining to elaborate: "I don't believe that has been the case."

So, when Blair says that torture sessions resulted in "a deeper understanding of the al Qa'ida organization," it's important to note that he doesn't say anything about it stopping a terrorist attack. And it's also important to note that what information we did get might "have been obtained through other means."

It's at this point that the pro-torture argument stops being logic and devolves into magic or religion. Let me draw a parallel. Say you had a chance to talk to a shaman from an ancient culture that practiced human sacrifice. You find out that, on a certain date, when the sun and the stars are just right, this guy sacrifices a virgin to make sure winter ends and all the plants come back. You tell him that killing virgins is immoral and unnecessary.

"Are you crazy?" he asks. "It works every, single time! What more proof do you need?"

Even on those occasions that torture actually works, there's no reason to believe that other methods wouldn't have. The argument for torture is an argument from the position of ignorance; unless you've tried literally everything else, you can't argue that it was necessary.

In fact, we're finding out that torture was used unnecessarily. McClatchy Newspapers reported that people were tortured to give up the link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda -- despite the fact that there wasn't a link. "Such information would've provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003," wrote Jonathan Landay. "No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and Saddam’s regime."

And even if there were, how would this information have made us safer? The Bush administration was basically resorting to torture to dig themselves out of a hole. "[T]he Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link," commented the NYT's Paul Krugman. "There’s a word for this: it’s evil."

And that's all torture is: evil. There's no good argument to be made in its favor.

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1 comment:

  1. Before I get into anything, could you define exactly what torture is?