Is Torture Justified?
Since Obama’s release of Bush Administration memos, there has been a great deal of debate about torture—its place in our society, and what penalties (if any) should be dealt out to those Bush Administration officials who performed torture. There is no doubt that the United States performed torture (if you count waterboarding as torture, and most do), and very little doubt that that torture worked, and that information was extracted that saved lives. The question is: was that torture acceptable, and if not, should anyone be punished for it?
There can be little doubt that torture works, if “works” is defined as “getting information from detainees that would not otherwise have been acquired.” Virtually every country and culture across history has engaged in torture at some point, which is a clue as to its effectiveness. And the CIA claims that waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced information that prevented terrorist attacks, potentially saving many innocent lives.
The catch is, most people agree that, generally, torture is immoral and wrong. So, given that a) torture saves lives, and b) torture is wrong, was the United States justified in using torture?
No. If torture is wrong, then performing it is always unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances. It’s a cliché, but the end does not justify the means. Even if the act of torture produces a good (saving lives), the act is not any less evil.
Some consider that argument unconvincing, arguing that the greatest good of the greatest number is the primary concern here and that it would be immoral not to use torture if circumstances required it. But consider a (imperfect) parallel. Suppose the government developed of a method of brainwashing people so that the idea of crime was repugnant to them, a la A Clockwork Orange. Such a measure, if employed against dangerous criminals, would undoubtedly save lives. But such an act violates the inherent dignity of the human person, and most moral people would, I think, reject it. The case of waterboarding is similar to this hypothetical case.
And those people who find that ethical argument unconvincing might wish to consider that torture can lead to other, worse thing; that a government that rejects such ethical mores as a resistance to torture might later reject rights that hit closer to home. Torture does not directly affect the vast majority of Americans—but it might lead to precedents that do.
But right or wrong, the United States did perform torture. What should happen to those who did?
It would be very difficult to justify prosecuting those who actually did torture under orders. (The Abu Ghraib torturers are another story; they weren’t actually under orders and seemed to torture simply for sadistic fun). “Just following orders” doesn’t excuse all crimes, but torture resides in enough of a gray area that it works here. Some have suggested prosecuting those Bush Administration lawyers whom produced the legal justification for torture, but there is no crime to prosecute them for—can one be prosecuted for writing a legal opinion? In addition, doing so would probably be a case of an ex post facto law, and would set a dangerous precedent for any future presidents who want to go after the previous administration.
If you can’t prosecute those who actually waterboarded, nor the ones who provided the legal justification for it, who is left? Only those who approved it, and in this case those people are George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other top Bush officials. So should they be prosecuted?
No, for two reasons. The first is that trying to prosecute a former president would tear the country apart like nothing else since the Civil War, and would set a destructive precedent for future presidents. Under that sort of precedent, opponents of the current president aren’t just obstructionists—they may also be lawbreakers.
The second reason is that while Bush and company are the ones who authorized torture, they were hardly the only ones who knew about it. The Democratic congressional leadership was briefed about torture, and those who weren’t could easily have found out about it. But they remained silent, and tacitly supported torture. They are as guilty as Bush is.