torture works? so oppose it

expressen, 13 may 2011

‘The crowning achievement of Obama’s presidency’, Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for George W Bush, suggested in the wake of last week’s killing of Osama bin Laden, ‘came as a direct result of the CIA interrogation program he has denigrated and shut down.’

The ‘CIA interrogation programme’ to which Thiessen refers is what most of us would call torture, the use of which was banned two years ago by President Barack Obama. One of the unexpected consequences of bin Laden’s death has been to reopen the debate about the use of torture in the war on terror.

Many intelligence officers have suggested that only the use of euphemistically called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ allowed American forces to track down bin Laden to his hideout in Abbottabad. According to Jose Rodriguez, who ran the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 2002 to 2005, it was by torturing the top al-Qaeda leaders Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi at so-called ‘black sites’ - secret CIA prisons mainly in Eastern Europe – that agents learnt of bin Laden’s special courier. Tracking that courier’s movements eventually led them to bin Laden. Rodriguez’s claims have been seen by many as a vindication of the Bush administration’s torture programme. ‘We got beat up for it’, Marty Martin, a retired CIA officer who for years led the hunt for bin Laden, told the AP news agency,‘but those efforts led to this great day’.

Many dispute the idea that ‘those efforts’ did ‘lead to this great day’. According to Republican Seanator John McCain, the claims that torture provided useful information is 'false':

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.

'What raised suspicions among interrogators’, the New York Times reports, 'was that Mohammed and al-Libbi ‘claimed never to have heard of bin Laden’s trusted courier’. In other words, the ‘vital information’ gained under torture was actually a lie. Only subsequently, during ‘standard interrogation’ did Mohammed gave up any useful information. And as Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side, a seminal book on the CIA’s use of kidnapping and torture, has put it, if torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the ‘magic bullet’ in the search for bin Laden, ‘then the CIA might have wrapped this up back in 2003, while they were waterboarding the 9/11 mastermind a hundred and eighty-three times.’

It is questionable, then, whether torture actually played a role in the hunt for al-Qaeda’s chief. But suppose it had provided vital information. Would that have made torture acceptable? The answer depends on why one is opposed to torture in the first place. If you dislike it for pragmatic reasons – because you go through all that trouble and blood and mess and still you don’t have good intelligence – then any evidence that torture has provided important information clearly should make you change your mind. But if you are opposed to torture for more fundamental moral reasons then it would make no difference at all. The moral case depends not upon whether torture is or is not an effective means of gleaning information but upon whether treating another human being as a piece of meat is or is not morally acceptable. The pragmatist thinks it tolerable to treat humans as a piece of meat so long as the benefits of doing so are clear. The moral opponent of torture disagrees.

It is easy to oppose torture when it produces no practical results. After all, only a psychopath would think it worthwhile to inflict pain simply for the sake of it. It is precisely in those cases in which torture appears to bring practical benefits that it is important to take a stand against it.

It is not just in relation to torture that this distinction between pragmatic and moral arguments is important. Many of the practices underlying the war on terror – extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, unfettered surveillance, etc – could possibly be justified on pragmatic grounds. Even if they could, they should still be opposed on moral grounds. There are certain moral and political principles on which we should not compromise. Defending those principles is one of the reasons for fighting someone like bin Laden. Betraying them by using torture or interning suspects without due process in Guantanamo Bay is to betray the fight against terrorism.

But what about the so-called ‘ticking bomb scenario’? Suppose a terrorist has planted a bomb that is about to go off and only through torture could we get him to reveal the location. Should we not torture him? Extreme, exceptional scenarios are not very useful for deriving general ethical principles. In any case, all moral codes possess a certain flexibility, and it is quite possible to marry an implacable opposition to torture with an acceptance that in exceptional cases rules may be bent, even broken.

Most people would accept that murder is a moral wrong. But if a woman in a violent and abusive relationship murders her husband, most would understand her actions, perhaps even accept them as having been necessary, while still deeming murder to be morally unacceptable.

This can be as true of torture as of murder. Even though I regard torture as treating a human being as a piece of meat, I also accept that there may be extreme circumstances in which I would understand its use. This does not make torture ethically right. But, as the American writer Cathy Young has put it, ‘If we start with a “thou shalt not torture” absolute, we are likely to be vigilant about lapses from this commandment, limiting them only to absolute necessity. If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there’s no telling how low we’re going to go on that slippery slope.’

The answer, looking at the current debate about torture, seems to be ‘as low as you can make it’. Today’s apologists for torture are not talking about using it in a ‘ticking bomb scenario’, to prevent, say, an American city from being nuked. Rather, they are justifying it on the grounds that it may have produced some small nugget of information that years later perhaps helped locate a single individual, albeit a particularly malevolent one.

What we are witnessing is what the writer Conor Friedersdorf has aptly called 'torture creep’, the transformation of torture from something gruesome and abhorrent to an ordinary, acceptable technique. A society that allows that to happen is not a society that can call itself civilized.