Torture Is Always Immoral
For the sake of the younger people here, whose idea of "normal behavior” by an American president is that of the current one, let me explain that until, George W. Bush, torture was never official US policy. Not during any war fought by the US. Not in World War 2 against a far worse threat than extreme Islamism. Why was that? Because up until the Bush administration, the United States officially believed what all the rest of the great civilizations had long ago concluded: Torture is always immoral. Yes, Americans - to their everlasting shame - have used torture in the past. The difference with Bush is that it was never official policy. Now it is, and that means torture has been normalized by the United States. And that creates a slippery slope. Today, only "terrorists” will be tortured, but tomorrow the practice will spread to other “undesirables.” Unless, that is, this country’s voters and their representatives proactively demand that presidents again obey the rule of law and that torture once again be unequivocally banned.
There are many reasons why torture is immoral, so many, in fact, that its immorality can be thought of as an axiom of civilization. It is simply obvious that there are no acceptable excuses for torture. Ever. And therefore I’ve had, and still have, little interest in discussing the ethics of it - there really is nothing to discuss. But given its normalization by Bush, it may not be so obvious to some of you, so let us explore some of the excuses currently around. Don’t worry, I don’t have any gruesome tales of torture to tell. You are all capable of imagining what torture is.
If you’ve seen ‘24,’ you know the drill for excuse #1, sometimes called “The Ticking Bomb.” Suppose there’s a terrorist bomb in my daughter’s school, and I, working for the CIA, have captured a terrorist in on the plot. There’s 10 minutes left ‘till it blows up unless I can get the code needed to defuse the bomb from the terrorist. Don’t I have a right to torture him? You might think the answer is obvious, but it is not.
This is a cynical and emotionally manipulative example. Of course, I would do anything at all I could to keep my daughter safe. But I would never torture anyone to do so. Why? Because this situation has never, ever happened, Nothing like it has ever happened. And it is never likely to happen. And if it did, it is not likely the terrorist would give up the code no matter what you did to him. This is not an honest hypothetical example of what “could” happen. It is a simply disgusting, useless nightmare of a fantasy. It might make good tv if you like that sort of thing. But it is as close to reality as little green men from Mars landing on the earth. (That has not stopped "serious people” who really ought to know better to treat this as worthy of philosophical exegesis.)
But what, you persist, if it did happen? So, let's put the answer another way. It is much more likely that you will win 200 million dollars in the lottery AND that all the countries in the world that have them will disable their nuclear weapons tomorrow than that a situation like this would ever happen. In other words, the question is so absurd, it makes more sense for you to open up a new bank account to hold all that money you’re going to win. A lot more sense.
Now, let’s examine a second excuse: torture can be useful. In defending the torture of a 9/11 suspect, Bush said, “I didn't have any problem at all trying to find out what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knew." And apparently, KSM, as he’s called, started talking immediatley after Bush’s thugs started torturing him.
So, isn’t torture moral if we can use it to obtain information to save lives?
Well, no. In fact obtaining information’s the big problem with torture. Sure, KSM talked. He told his torturers anything at all to get them to stop. Some of it was true. A lot of it was false, as in totally misleadingly, dangerously, and obviously false. Indeed, Bush has claimed that the torture of KSM stopped more attacks. But he is lying about this as he has lied about nearly everything else (including that the US doesn’t torture: it does, and you and I are paying the torturers’ salaries). There’s a reason no one has ever provided any evidence that anything KSM said under torture was helpful in the slightest to preventing future attacks. That’s because there is no evidence. Sure, it’s possible that KSM actually did reveal helpful information under torture which is so sensitive it can’t be revealed. And it’s just as possible Elvis really is alive, putting the finishing touches on a duet cd with Kurt Cobain.
Don’t get me wrong. Torture is not immoral because it doesn’t work very well. Torture does not become moral if it works. No. Torture is immoral AND it doesn’t work.
Recently, I heard a third excuse, namely that the urge to physically harm our enemies is natural, deep-seated. Many people truly want those they hate to suffer in all sorts of horrible ways, even if doing so doesn’t serve to provide information or otherwise protect them.
True enough, I suppose. But that is all the more reason to ban torture. Simply because many people wish to commit an immoral act does not make it moral. Until Bush, the leaders of (at least all modern) first world societies have understood that torture can never be an official government policy. The thirst for revenge can never justify immoral behavior by a democratic government like the US which, for all its many, many faults, intended its laws to be based upon. and administered by, what Lincoln called “cold reason,” rather than the lusts of a lynch mob.
Finally, I’ve heard a variant of excuse #3. Who are you to be so high and mighty? Are you telling me that if someone harmed your family, you wouldn’t want to see them suffer? I have two responses to such trash. First of all, the question itself makes me wonder about the hostility of the questioner who wishes me to imagine my family harmed. Secondly, the question illustrates one reason why there are laws based upon cold reason, in order to restrain those who are too emotionally distraught to act in a rational manner - as I very well might, if my family were harmed. It’s oh so cathartic in the movies, when the supermoral hero beats the Evil One to a bloody pulp and then rolls him over a cliff, it feels real good. But people, we don’t live inside a movie. Here, in reality, even Bruce Willis is not BRUCE WILLIS, believe it or not, and Clint Eastwood is not Dirty Harry. And catharsis has nothing to do with (or shouldn’t, at least) justice.
If you have read this far, I apologize. "The ethics of torture" is a topic that no one in a healthy democracy should have to spend too much time discussing because its immorality should be self-evident to its citizens. But we don’t live in a healthy democracy - and, after Bush, it is at least arguable the extent to which we actually live in a democracy. So I’m sorry you have felt you had to read this far. So now, to quickly conclude a tedious subject, please remember this if nothing else:
Torture is always immoral. End of discussion.