Justification of Torture
The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report in early Dec. 2014 indicating excessive torture and cover-ups by the CIA after 9/11. Plenty of information has been made public, including the 20 key findings of the report.
Is the CIA Torture Justified?
I’ll just come right out and answer simply: NO. I’ve got two major issues with torture in general.
Firstly, the moral issue. I do not believe that torture is ever justified because I do not believe that the ends justify the means. This is what I heard over and over in the news. Most did not seek to discredit the reports of torture, they sought to claim that the torture yielded valuable information that led to military victories against terrorism. First, I’m not sure that the idea of a “military victory against terrorism” isn’t a prime example of winning the battle and losing the war. Second, this line of reasoning is very troubling.
Ethicists, literary authors, religious leaders, and more have debated the question of whether the ends justify the means for ages. Proponents often go immediately to the extreme: “What if you could save a million people by killing one?” However, there’s an inherent fallacy in making an argument from an extreme example – it assumes that somewhere there’s a line at which point it changes from right to wrong. This is a dangerous way to go about thinking.
Ethicists say that this question divides people into deontologists (the morality of an action depends on its qualities) and consequentialists (the morality of an action depends on its outcomes). Most people, in practice, slide back and forth between the two at will, never worrying about whether their resulting beliefs are incompatible. However, just like people’s philosophical frameworks, the ends and means are a jumbled up mess. There’s no clear distinction where means become ends, and whether or not the ends aren’t just more means on the way to more ends. Without falling into a philosophy discussion, I’ll extricate myself here by saying that I believe this jumbled-up mess and the incompatibility of deontology and consequentialism makes it impossible for me to regularly allow for the ends to justify the means.
My second issue with torture is a Biblical one. One of Jesus’ most famous sayings was to love your enemies. The apostle Paul elaborated to quote Solomon who said that repaying good for evil was like heaping burning coals on your enemy’s head. Radical as this teaching may be, I actually subscribe to it. I do believe that overcoming evil with good is not only possible, but that it may be the best way of resolving conflicts. It’s a common literary theme for the good guy to become evil in his fight against evil, and Jesus was clearly interested in preserving his followers on the right side of righteousness. While “love your enemies” doesn’t preclude the idea of justice for evil, it does make it pretty hard to defend torturing your enemy.
In a broader sense of the Biblical idea, I think that a decent understanding of Scripture shows that all mankind has a certain brotherhood. We are all of different families and different faiths, but the Bible never teaches that those who believe differently are our enemies. A more appropriate analogy would be to say that if this is a war, those who believe differently are the prisoners of war to be fought for, not fought against. Taking this idea beyond the question of religious belief, if we could think of our enemies more as prisoners to be rescued than as the enemy themselves, our wars would look a lot different. And, to touch on that earlier tangent again, I’m not sure that our “war on terror” wouldn’t resolve itself a lot quicker if we stopped making our enemies hate us so much.
Response from Aurelius
Straight to the point. Nice response. We both fall into the roughly 25% of the U.S. population that believe torture or harsh interrogation techniques are never justified. What we label these techniques: torture, harsh interrogation, or enhanced interrogation, matters. We both label these as torture perhaps because we disagree with their use. I think we would share a similar viewpoint with the 18-20% who think torture is rarely justified. However, I would love to hear from the 50-55% of the U.S. population who think these techniques are sometimes or often justified, even given that research shows that harsher techniques positively correlate with faulty information. To support Antipas’ point about overcoming evil with good, the Costanzo research study I linked supported the idea that, “strategically useful information is best obtained from prisoners who are treated humanely.”
You mention that you disagree with “the ends justify the means.” I do too, and I’ll just share a bit about that phrase’s origin to expand on the deontologists vs consequentialists topic. The idea, not the direct quote, is a common theme in Machiavelli’s The Prince. There are many historians and philosophers that believe this work is a satire, as it was written as political advice to the ruling Medici family while Machiavelli was imprisoned by them. In his other works he is a supporter of free republics, not monarchies.
Although I am hyper goal-oriented, the ends cannot always justify the means because the ends cannot reliably be foreseen.
The five-year Senate investigation resulted in a 6,700-page report, 525 of which have been publicly released. Without much searching you can find highlights, key findings, shocking findings, public responses, and endless media coverage. The report and response fell on sharp political lines with all six Republicans on the committee not participating in the investigation and instead they issued a 167-page dissent. One prominent Republican that supported the report’s findings is John McCain, who stated that the interrogation techniques used by the CIA as documented in the report “damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.” McCain has first-hand experience with torture while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over five years. President Obama and other Democrats issued similar statements. The current and former CIA directors issued countering responses, with the current director, John Brennan, stating, “It is our considered view that the detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided information that was useful and was used in the ultimate operation to go against Bin Laden.” Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, stated more to the point, “I think the conclusions they drew were analytically offensive and almost street-like in their simplistic language and conclusions.”
Like many contemporary American issues, politics muddies up the real concerns. Neither side denied that enhanced interrogation techniques were used on many terrorist detainees. Whether or not these produced actionable intelligence, shouldn’t their use be concerning? As a society, where do we draw the line between enhanced interrogation and torture?
I argue that much of what the CIA classified as enhanced interrogation techniques is in fact torture and should not be practiced by the U.S. regardless of the circumstances. Waterboarding, one of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, has its roots in an earlier form used during the 16th century Spanish Inquisition where it was designed as mild torture with its name bearing its intention, tortura del agua. Since then it has been repeatedly classified as torture and was even outlawed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. If even some of the Senate’s report is true, many techniques used against detainees were far worse than waterboarding.
Even though mild torture or enhanced interrogation may be ethically wrong, it may be valuable if it prevents harm to a greater number of people. To me, that would be a gray area. However, it doesn’t. The techniques are not effective. The severity and length of torture correlate strongly with the likelihood of false confessions. Furthermore, as noted in the previously-cited research paper, perceived torture techniques “generate hatred and desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, radicalizing even ordinary people with no strong political views.” The CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques may have ended, but they damaged the reputation of the U.S. and created enemies where none previously existed. Torture is not justified. We must do better.
Response from Antipas
It’s great to see that we are agreeing on this point. I particularly like how you point out that harsh interrogation correlates with false confessions and wrong information. I hadn’t come across this information, but it doesn’t surprise me. It points out that there is a difference between stern and forceful interrogation that delivers results, and torture which probably doesn’t.
I think that it might be worthwhile to reconsider what kind of “information” is valuable these days. What do we need from prisoners? Names? Take out as many of the enemy as you like, as long as the ideology lives on more will spring up. Locations? Satellite and spy imaging is developing more and more almost daily, and it’s not too far away that we could have a daily-updated photo of every part of the earth’s surface. Plans? Easy to lie about under pressure, and easy for the bad guys to change when they are compromised.
No, your final point is, I think, the most significant. If enhanced interrogation radicalized our enemies against us, and damaged our reputation to create more enemies, then any actionable intelligence created by the torture was worthless compared to the harm done. This is where I have major issues with the foreign policies of both major US parties – if we continue to drive other nations around the world to dislike us, we are only injuring our own future selves. We don’t have to be friends with everyone, but we can’t keep making enemies.
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