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Torture Is Unacceptable; But What Is Torture?


Are there things that one human being should not, under any circumstances, do to another? Is it ever appropriate to disregard a person’s humanity entirely, in the interests of attaining some highly desirable goal? These, I believe, are among the difficult questions that confront us when we consider the morality of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT).

Enhanced interrogation can mean a number of different things, not all of which (in my view) are categorically wrong. It should go without saying that intelligence agencies can at times have very compelling reasons to want information from uncooperative detainees. Sadly, a substantial portion of the population seems not to take this seriously. It’s genuinely troubling to see the naïvete with which some people dismiss enhanced interrogation, asserting blithely that it can never work, or simply failing to appreciate the seriousness of the obligations that we lay on intelligence agencies in demanding that they protect us from covert threats. Uncovering terrorist attacks before they happen is no simple matter, and as a rule, bad people aren’t willing to tell us about the heinous massacres they’ve been plotting just because we ask politely. There is no reason to take seriously those maddeningly unreflective people who presume that niceness must always be the best policy.

Equally irksome are those who dismiss all efforts to define torture as Jesuitical exercises in self-justification. They are not, or at least not necessarily. When it comes to interrogation, delving into the details is not merely permissible, it is necessary. Careful moral analysis is needed if we are to responsibly preserve the integrity of our nation, without obliterating any meaningful moral distinction between ourselves and our enemies.

Drawing Distinctions Between Interrogation and Torture

Being interrogated by American intelligence need not be a pleasant experience for enemy combatants. They are not honored guests. If interrogators have reason to believe that a suspect has critical information, it seems reasonable to allow them to intimidate or manipulate him in various ways. Averting terrorist attacks is important enough to justify certain breaches of decorum.

Human beings need not always be nice to one another, but we should always maintain a basic respect for the bodily and psychological integrity of other human beings.

At the same time, we should never allow ourselves to forget that enemy combatants are still human beings. Most of them probably aren’t very good human beings, and undoubtedly some are moral monsters. They are not citizens of our nation, nor are they prisoners of war in the proper sense. Still, they are human. This means that they possess that intrinsic dignity and worth that is proper to all human life. Seeing the moral significance of that basic reality is perhaps the most important line that divides a humane and rational society from a terrorist organization or a brutal dictatorship.

Human beings need not always be nice to one another, but we should always maintain a basic respect for the bodily and psychological integrity of other human beings. Sometimes it is necessary to cause pain, discomfort, or inconvenience to others by way of pursuing important ends. However, I cannot respect a person’s humanity while deliberately maiming him, or acting in such a way as to leave him psychologically broken. Such actions assault a person’s humanity on such a fundamental level that it would be ridiculous to claim they are compatible with a real respect for that person’s life.

I take this to be the basic line between aggressive interrogation and torture. Legitimate interrogation may be unpleasant, but it endeavors to leave the interrogated person physically and psychologically intact, in such a way that his long-term welfare is not seriously threatened. Torture recognizes no such imperative. It consents to treat the interrogated person purely as a means to a further end, with no regard for that person’s own well-being.

Once We Treat People Like Objects, We’re Acting Like Terrorists

Among the truly depraved (despots, for example) torture is sometimes used as a means of quashing political dissent, or even as a form of entertainment. Presumably (hopefully!) Americans would all agree that this is morally monstrous. But even when torture is employed as a means to extracting information that might save innocent lives, a line has still been crossed.

Enhanced interrogation inevitably happens under a veil of secrecy, and that being the case, there isn’t a good way of ensuring that torture is reserved for the heinously guilty.

We should not allow ourselves to take too much comfort in the assurance that the tortured are bad people. Most of them probably are, and some undoubtedly “deserve what they have coming.” Nevertheless, two considerations should give us pause. The first is that enhanced interrogation inevitably happens under a veil of secrecy, and that being the case, there isn’t a good way of ensuring that torture is reserved for the heinously guilty. Very bad people aren’t the only ones who can have valuable information. Are we simply to take the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) word for it that they’ll take extreme care to spare the innocent (or the not-very-guilty)? That seems quite naïve. When did conservatives become so trusting of governmental organizations?

On a deeper level, though, the guilt or innocence of the tortured is quite literally beside the point. For the interrogator, the moral state of the prisoner is irrelevant. The welfare of the prisoner is irrelevant. The humanity of the prisoner is irrelevant. The tortured person, as such, disappears from the equation. He is regarded purely as a source of information, no less dispensable than a computer or a reference book.

Whether or not his actions are heinous enough to merit such treatment is unimportant, because his torturers are not in the business of administering justice. They have simply chosen to disregard the prisoner’s humanity for the sake of pursuing other ends. If we believe we are at liberty to do that, is there any moral precept that we won’t break, given sufficient motivation? What do we have left that separates us from the terrorist or the despot, apart from a more-comfortable situation that generally enables our ordinary citizens the luxury of more squeamish sensibilities?

How Far Is Too Far?

Philosophically, the distinction between aggressive interrogation and torture is critical. Aggressive interrogation is at times a regrettable necessity, but the apologist for torture simply jettisons any plausible claim to respect human life as such.

At the extremes, sleep deprivation can cause long-term psychological damage or perhaps even death.

In application, the line between these is anything but bright. Of course, some interrogation tactics do seem pretty obviously to fall to one side or the other of the “torture” line. So, for example, we shouldn’t call it “torture” when intelligence operatives are loud, rude, or verbally aggressive during an interrogation. It’s not torture to make prisoners sit in hard chairs, or to turn the thermostat to uncomfortable levels for limited periods of time. It’s not torture if we keep questioning suspects awake well past their bedtimes, in hopes that the exhaustion will make them careless. On the flip side, it definitely is torture once we start severing limbs or brain lobes, crushing hands or knee caps, or flogging people.

In between these relatively-clear extremes, there is a large realm of gray. People vary quite a lot, both physically and psychologically, in terms of what stresses they can endure. If an interrogator’s intention is to frazzle, confuse, or even terrify a suspect without causing permanent harm, he will need to exercise significant prudence. The prisoner’s fortitude and vulnerabilities must both be carefully weighed. Sometimes an interrogator might miscalculate in ways that are minimally culpable, or not culpable at all. After all, people occasionally misjudge their own strength in ways that lead to permanent harm. It’s too much to ask that intelligence agencies preserve dangerous prisoners from even the smallest possibility of risk.

Waterboarding and sleep deprivation are two examples of interrogation techniques that (in my view) may or may not qualify as torture, depending on a variety of factors. Waterboarding is an intensely unpleasant experience, which nevertheless can be done in such a way as to avoid permanent harm. We have used it on our own operatives as part of their counter-interrogation training. (By contrast, we do not maim or disfigure our own operatives for that purpose.) It can plausibly be argued that waterboarding does not always and necessarily constitute torture. At the same time, waterboarding certainly can cause permanent harm if it used too frequently or without sufficient caution. It doesn’t clearly and unambiguously qualify as torture, but it isn’t something to take lightly.

Sleep deprivation is an interesting example, because in mild forms it’s a commonplace experience. If sleep deprivation qualifies as torture, then babies the world over are torturing their parents every day. Even in milder forms it can sometimes be a useful interrogation tactic, because exhaustion confuses people and leaves them more susceptible to suggestion. At the extremes, however, sleep deprivation can cause long-term psychological damage or perhaps even death. Josef Stalin took many prisoners to those extremes in the Gulag.

Now, to Combine Realism and Morality

Dissatisfying as it may seem, it really isn’t possible to create hard-and-fast rules for every sort of enhanced interrogation. Physicians, psychologists, and moral philosophers have spent long hours debating these points, which is mostly a good thing. We should be pleased that our Justice Department gives such careful attention to these issues, because it generally shows that efforts are being made to avoid torture.

There is no fail-proof way to enable interrogators to do their jobs without opening the door to harrowing mistakes.

We also need to recognize that in many cases, a rule book is no substitute for a prudent and humane interrogator, who has an individualized sense of a particular prisoner’s moral and psychological state. This is frightening because, realistically, intelligence operatives aren’t perfect. Sometimes they make bad prudential decisions. Sometimes they make bad moral decisions. There is no fail-proof way to enable them to do their jobs without opening the door to harrowing mistakes.

As members of the general public, we must endeavor to find a balance between being critical (because torture is a deeply serious matter) and being understanding (because we should appreciate the difficulty and importance of the work that these agencies do). It isn’t fair to demand that the CIA protect us from desperate criminals, and then to boil over with indignation whenever political tricks force us to confront the (obvious!) fact that catching terrorists is an unsavory business. Since September 11, our nation has been mostly free of serious terrorist attacks, and we should all be profoundly grateful for that.

At the same time, we should never go so far as to condone torture. Yes, it happens. It will continue to happen, like other unfortunate things in this world. But torture is never right or just. It is an assault on humanity itself, and on the fundamental goods of life and dignity, which we as a society normally claim to value. A nation that openly condones torture is in grave danger of losing its own soul. We should make it clear to our political leaders (and the people they appoint) that We The People find torture morally unacceptable.