If we are the civilized people that we claim to be, the only appropriate policy direction on torture, or anything resembling it, is not to do it. There are two essential reasons:
- If policies admit torture as acceptable in some circumstances, some of our people, perhaps being restless or bored, will do it for sport. (See Abu Ghraib.)
- We like to believe that we face danger bravely, being appropriately apprehensive, but we don’t let it scare us. A policy admitting torture is the mark of a scared people.
Last week, the public discourse included reheated discussions arising from the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.’ It was the same discussion that we had years ago, and the report (a Democratic partisan effort) revealed some of the gorier details of these interrogation methods, but otherwise revealed nothing of consequence we didn’t know before.
Was it torture? I don’t know if there’s a formal definition, but as I think about it, torture would include any of the following:
- Violating the subject’s body.
- Causing permanent physical injury to the subject.
- Offending the subject’s basic human decency. This would include something like parading the subject naked in the town square; offending the subject’s personal beliefs is fair game.
- Using drugs or poisons on the subject.
By that definition, yes, we tortured people.
Did it work? This is the part where the debate has swirled for years. But it was only a couple of days ago that I understood what we were really up to.
- If you interrogate one person, the results will be hit or miss. He might tell you the truth, and he might not.
- If you interrogate a dozen people on the same question, you’ll get a dozen stories. But by cross-checking them, you can usually reconstruct the truth, or a good approximation.
We weren’t just practicing enhanced interrogation on a handful of terrorist kingpins. We were doing it on a broad scale, getting dozens of answers to the same question and reconstructing what happened from the result.
Once again: did it work? The answer to that is probably–justifiably–secret.
In fairness, most of the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been discussed at length (waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions) don’t meet my earlier definition of torture.
But that doesn’t make them right. They can still be abused for sport; they’re still the mark of a frightened people. We’re saying that the ends justify the means: the first step on the road of evil.
And finally, to turn to the favorite argument of the defenders of enhanced interrogation: what if you had someone who knew the details of the atomic bomb that would destroy New York City tomorrow? Would you play nice with him, or bash his face in?
Of course, you’d bash his face in.
But there’s a big difference between doing that, as an agent exercising his judgement in an extreme situation, and a policy admitting face-bashing as a normal interrogation technique.