The Poor Case for Torture

Augusta, GA columnist Austin Rhodes reiterated his support for torture by publishing his thoughts from six years ago.

I’m going to try to address the column point by point, but I think that many of these points are not the real reasons we should oppose torture.

He starts off with a ticking-time bomb scenario.  Conveniently, Conor Friedersdorf published in The Atlantic today a great essay refuting this justification.

Then Mr. Rhodes answers “no” to the following questions regarding waterboarding:

  1. Is it unconstitutional?
  2. Is it cruel and unusual punishment?
  3. Does it produce useful intelligence?
  4. Does waterboarding, if only used to produce intelligence, make use equivalent to the “bad guys?”

I am not a constitutional lawyer, and, while adherence to law is certainly a good value, I think opposition to torture should be based on a more universal morality. So I won’t contest this point.

Rhodes denies that waterboarding, properly used, is punishment. I’m assuming, like Justice Scalia, Rhodes is distinguishing between actions designed to produce intelligence and actions designed to punish, without regard to intelligence value. The phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” is part of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Again, if we’re talking about this issue legally, it does not interest me. If we are discussing the idea more generally, then I’m sure waterboarding, “enhanced interrogation” and torture techniques, inflicted as punishment, are cruel and unusual. Human Rights Watch points out that the United States called these techniques torture when other countries did them.

Mr. Rhodes believes waterboarding works because the CIA wouldn’t do it if it did not produce actionable intelligence:

Say what you want to about CIA interrogation experts, but as a rule, they have never been accused as a group of being frivolous or inefficient. If waterboarding doesn’t work, why bother using it? And don’t invoke this garbage about the technique being used to procure “confessions.” The CIA doesn’t care if you say YOU DID IT, they want to know “WHO DID IT WITH YOU?”, “WHERE THEY ARE HIDING?”, AND “WHAT THEY HAVE PLANNED NEXT?” Getting “false confessions” doesn’t aid them in their cause one iota.

Later on, Mr. Rhodes asserts that the innate goodness, competence and honesty of USA intelligence and military personnel are enough for us to believe that their techniques never cross the line from interrogation to punishment.

I am just enough of an optimist and a patriot that I believe the men and women working to save American lives through their work in the CIA and Special Forces military units are not misusing the waterboard any more than they are misusing their tanks, pistols and hand grenades. I will also say this: I am not (nor are most of you) trained or experienced enough in these matters to know when those tools are specifically needed, how they are needed or when they are needed.

Which other group of people is Mr. Rhodes willing to trust so completely? Scientists recommending a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Bankers claiming that regulation is unnecessary? Public health professionals urging mandatory vaccinations? Social workers urging increased funding? Teachers asking for reductions in mandatory testing and pay-for-performance plans? We members of the general public have little knowledge of these specialized areas. Should we not defer to their judgment? The correct answer, in various degrees, is not automatically. In fact, unless one believes that the USA is unique in human history, giving people absolute or near absolute power, with immunity from punishment, over others in the context of war and prison inevitably leads to abuses. I advise people to read about French torture in Algeria.

Mr. Rhodes argues that the CIA and military personnel aren’t “bad guys” because their motives were information-gathering and their techniques did not “burn flesh, break bones and pierce skin.”

Mr. Rhodes here seems to agree with George W Bush administration’s narrow definition of torture, as reflected in the infamous “Justice Department Memo on Torture.” Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project said:

Through these memos, Justice Department lawyers authorized interrogators to use the most barbaric interrogation methods, including methods that the U.S. once prosecuted as war crimes. The memos are based on legal reasoning that is spurious on its face, and in the end these aren’t legal memos at all – they are simply political documents that were meant to provide window dressing for war crimes. [April 16, 2009]

Mr. Rhodes ends with a modest proposal on how to deal with the detainees for those who object to “torture.” Rather than attacking this low hanging fruit, I’ll simply say it’s typical of the excesses of punditry in the entertainment age.

The entire discussion of whether waterboarding (or other techniques) “works” is “a sideshow,” according to an editorial by “The New Republic” dated December 14, 2014. It argues that the question should be an entirely moral one.

On purely utilitarian grounds, I intend to demonstrate that the negative consequences of torture outweigh its alleged benefits. Let’s assume, to avoid argument, that all the plots the CIA identified as being stopped by “enhanced interrogation techniques” would have succeeded and resulted in 10,000 deaths and 30,000 wounded. Let’s also assume that torture helped us assassinate Osama bin Laden and other “bad guys.”

Has the war on terror ended? Have we committed to withdrawing all our forces from Iraq and Afghanistan? Have we stopped deploying armed drones across wide swaths of Africa and Asia? Did bin Laden’s assassination prevent a single terrorist action? Moreover, can we kill enough “bad guys” to end terrorism? If so, how come the Peshawar attack occurred?

Torture is simply something governments do when they make war. Likewise, assassination, whether by special forces or unmanned aircraft with bombs, is an inevitable result of maintaining global empire. As David Swanson discusses in his book War is a Lie, discussing war crimes is pedantic when the whole enterprise is a crime.

Yes, I support ending mechanisms of torture and prosecution of those involved. But the real solution is ending USA empire.

Now, if you believe our network of military bases and alliances with corrupt regimes all over the world is benevolent, then you probably won’t buy my argument that torture “there” will inevitably result in “torture” here. The people who peform the torture in the black sites and detention centers of the Global War on Terror come back here to be spouses, parents, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. Are you really excited about soldiers stationed at Abu Ghraib or Bagram Air Force Base who carried out and witnessed torture serving as police officers and prison guards?

Did you know that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leading terrorist bogeyman du jour, was in US custody? How did torture and detention prevent terrorism? And, oh, the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have decreased or increased terrorism?

Meanwhile, more people die of lightning bolts than terrorism. We can’t do anything about that, but we could do something about poverty and public health if we weren’t blowing trillions of dollars on these stupid wars.

You can follow the discussion of Mr. Rhodes’s article on Facebook.

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