Some Questions About Torture
Since Barack Obama’s inauguration, many have wondered whether he will attempt to prosecute former Bush officials for human rights violation, and what his position on torture will be. Many liberals hope he will prosecute—they claim that only through vigorous investigation and prosecution can the country move on from the Bush Administration’s crimes. The Right disagrees—they claim that too aggressive investigations will hamper agents in the field, and that what the Bush Administration did was justified in order to save lives. Naturally, liberals accuse conservatives of being brutal fascists, while conservatives accuse liberals of being unconcerned with protecting Americans.
The debate comes down to two questions: a) should Obama investigate former Bush officials for human rights violations, and b) how far should interrogators go to extract information—in other words, is torture ever justified?
Answering the first question, I think that prosecuting ex-Bush officials would be a mistake. It’s hard to imagine the records of any interrogation—no matter how innocuous the methods used—could be released to the public, and presenting a case based on classified material would be almost unimaginably difficult.
Further, any prosecutions would be dangerously close to enforcing an ex post facto law. Waterboarding, for example, may be unethical (I’d guess that Obama thinks it is), but its legality was at worst debatable. If the United States was guilty of state-sanctioned torture under Bush, that torture was probably legally defensible. In fact, the real blame for any torture should lie with Congress for not restricting the practice more explicitly.
The answer to the second question (is torture ever justified) is a little more difficult. There’s a pretty sharp partisan divide here, with most conservatives in agreement that some forms of torture (e.g. waterboarding, if we consider waterboarding torture) are acceptable in some situations, while liberals are virtually unanimous that torture is never justified.
First, two misconceptions, one held by liberals and one by conservatives, should be cleared up. Many conservatives think that any torture would take place only in a 24-style ticking bomb scenario, where interrogators have a limited amount of time to extract the truth. This doesn’t happen, according to most experts. And if it did, torture wouldn’t work, since the person being tortured would only have to hold out a relatively short length of time before the “ticking bomb” exploded.
For the liberal’s part, there seems to be some idea that America’s alleged use of torture is a big selling point for Al-Qaeda’s recruiters. That idea isn’t very credible, at least not to me. Radical Muslims were killing American’s long before anyone in the West even suggested that the United States used torture. And anyhow, if torture is moral and effective (and that’s a hypothetical here, not a statement of fact), then should the U.S. stop using it because it provokes radical Muslims? So did the invasion of Afghanistan, and no one thinks that was a mistake.
But misconceptions aside, the question of whether or not torture can be justified is a complex one. Most would agree that torture is not justified as a punitive measure; the United States can’t waterboarding someone simply for being a member of Al-Qaeda. And for the purposes of this post, we’ll assume that torture is effective (many claim it is not), since presumably anyone engaging in torture would believe it is.
The question comes down to: to what extent do the ends (saving lives) justify the means? Would truly barbaric tortures, such as electrodes to the genitals or drilling through the kneecap, be justified in order to save lives? Given 24’s popularity, I suppose that many would say “yes”, but I believe that the correct answer is in the negative. All people, no matter how evil, still retain some rights, and I believe that torture is an intrinsically immoral act that is never justified. (That, I may add, also happens to be the teaching of the Catholic Church). Some good might come out of torture—but some good can out of almost any bad act. But good consequences do not diminish the immorality of a morally wrong act.