Torture Doesn’t Work (and by the Way, It’s Wrong)

I’m a longstanding admirer of James Fallows, whose varied and always substantive and incisive blogging at the Atlantic is worthy of your attention, but even he today succumbs to the meme of the moment (and the last and the next) on torture.

Congratulations to Sen. John McCain for his brave op-ed in the Washington Post today (a) reasserting his long-standing view that torture is wrong, illegal, and un-American, and (b) arguing, contrary to many of his recent political allies, that torture had not been the key to breaking the bin Laden case.

Well, so far, so good. No knowledge, or argument from it, should be suppressed, and Fallows offers two from McCain: the moral and the pragmatic. The remainder of the post, however, proceeds to focus on the latter.

As [McCain] said, in response to triumphalist claims that waterboarding produced the crucial info:

>>In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.<<

Like most every other public voice, the greater emphasis by far from Fallows here is on the appeal to efficacy, not morality. A culture, a society, a nation that prides (and in some quarters, preens) itself on its righteousness, not only at times (in those quarters) advocates and defends torture, but when it opposes torture does so with little faith in the moral argument against it. Always is felt the need to remind, to establish in as much fine detail as is available, that it doesn’t work.

If we are clear that torture is morally objectionable – and it was thought for years before the George W. Bush administration that it was clear – then it doesn’t matter if it works. We could solve many problems with extreme measures. Concerned about an Iranian nuclear capacity? We could not just bomb, but nuke every suspected development and reactor site. That would work. Even were we to determine to the satisfaction of most that torture does at times work – just as the general nuking of our adversaries might work – we would still need to consider the morality of such action.

This is a consideration – of our national ethics – in which the culture appears to have little confidence. What does that tell us?


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