Torture is a slippery slope …

… and other reasons why we shouldn’t listen to the siren songs of those who try to justify it. 

I’ve often joked to my dentist that if you really want to get information from someone, just hire an endodontist pop out a filling and use his tools with no anesthesia. The subject will be talking in no time. He’ll even tell you stuff he doesn’t know.

Roger-Rabbit-icon1That’s one of common criticisms of torture. Let’s consider it and several others:

1. We don’t know if it works. This question was fiercely debated after it was revealed the U.S. government tortured detainees. Governments that torture people almost always do it secretly, and treat the information obtained as state secrets, and when they get caught and try to defend their actions as necessary for state security, we are asked to take the torturers’ word for it that the information gained is worth it. You would never invest your money that way. Stocks, bonds, apartment buildings, and business opportunities all undergo thorough vetting. Why should we treat other peoples’ lives with a carelessness and lack of knowledge that we wouldn’t tolerate in the management of our own affairs? To do that, we must abdicate our moral responsibility to our fellow human beings on some stranger’s unverified say-so. That’s asking for too much.

2. Lack of due process and presumption of guilt. Even if you believe, in theory, in the efficacy and necessity of torturing captured terrorists to safeguard national security, and think the “bad guys” have it coming to them, because torture is almost always carried out extra-judicially there is a lack of legal safeguards to make sure you’re waterboarding the “right” guys. Using torture against your enemies requires presuming their identity and guilt. You don’t give them an opportunity to defend themselves or prove their innocence. In the real world, under the pressure of a perceived national emergency, these considerations are highly likely to get short or no shrift, and it’s a near-certainty that innocent and undeserving people will get caught up in a torture program of any scale. And because torture programs are carried out in secret, there’s no accountability — or deterrent — for making mistakes, which further increases the probability that innocent people will be tortured.

3. Revenge and payback. Turnabout is fair play, or at least equal pay. If we torture our adversaries’ prisoners, they’ll almost certainly do it to ours. The Cynical Golden Rule governs: “Do unto others what they do to you.” Even if you have no moral compass, one of the reasons you don’t torture your enemies is to protect your own personnel in harm’s way from a similar fate, or to save yourself from some other form of payback. That doesn’t always work, of course, but torturing their guys doesn’t help.

4. The difficulty of defining justified torture. Pinochet is dead now, but if he was here today, he might well ask that if it’s okay for the CIA to torture 9/11 detainees, then what was wrong with him throwing suspected leftists, naked and chained, out of airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean? After all, they opposed his regime, and therefore were a security threat to Chile’s established government. And if a few apolitical civilians got scooped up by mistake and taken for an airplane ride, well, shit happens. Everybody kills innocent people in war, too, and this is a form of war. Of course the U.S. officials who authorized torture, from President Bush and Vice President Cheney, to yes-men like Deputy U.S. Attorney John Yoo, to the CIA operatives and ordinary dogface soldiers who carried it out, thought they were doing God’s work or at least legitimate national security work. So did General Pinochet and his minions, and all of history’s other torturers.

5. Whatever information is gained comes at a high cost. Not only in the blood exacted by our enemies in retribution, but also the fact that our government tortured people will make it infinitely harder for our diplomats to criticize the human rights abuses of other countries, because we can no longer do so from the moral high ground. They’ll simply point out that we did the same thing, call our moralizing the hypocrisy it is, and tell us to take a hike — with impunity, because the rest of the world will be much less inclined to pay heed to what we say. When you get right down to it, ISIS isn’t doing anything that Christians haven’t done. Sure, that was centuries ago — until Bush, Cheney & Co. blew our good behavior credits.

6. Where does it stop? If you torture people to get actionable information, why wouldn’t you also torture people to take reprisal against your enemies, or simply because you feel like it? In the absence of any judicial controls, what is there to restrain the torturers? Supervision by their superiors? Is someone who orders or authorizes torture really going to do anything to his minions if they carry it too far? Especially when it’s all done in secret? To preserve that secrecy, you can’t punish your torture operatives for exceeding your orders, because if you do, they’ll turn whistleblower on you. If things get out of hand, you don’t have any choice but to cover it all up.

7. Torture is inherently evil. There is something in our makeup such that inflicting pain on another, even accidentally, distresses us. The intentional and calculated infliction of excruciating pain on another human being is appalling, cruel, and repulsive to people of ordinary sensibilities. We don’t let people treat animals that way; they go jail for that. What kind of people are we, to let our government treat other human beings worse than we allow anyone to treat animals? This is not to say there isn’t moral ambiguity in the world. The reality of this imperfect world is that sometimes innocents suffer for the misdeeds of the guilty. Occasionally our courts convict the wrong people; and in all modern wars, civilian casualties vastly outnumber the casualties inflicted on belligerents. The firebombs dropped on Germany and Japan, and the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, indiscriminately fell on military targets and civilian victims alike. We accept such things as a necessary, if morally tainted, side effect of war. Wars are fought for survival, which is where the “necessary” comes from. You can argue that the War On Terror is also a battle of survival, but torturing someone isn’t the same thing as dropping bombs on enemy positions; and anyway, we’re doing that with better (if still imperfect) precision with our improving aiming technology. Even if you somehow could be certain that you would never torture the wrong person, that the pain of torture would be borne only by those with information to reveal or egregious guilt on their shoulders, it’s still a moral wrong; and like all moral wrongs, its greatest effect is on those who commit it. In the end, the biggest rap against torture is that it turns the torturers — and those who condone and rationalize what they’ve done — into the very monsters they claim to be protecting the world from.



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