Monday, January 19, 2009

Why the use of torture is contrary to our national interest

The change in administrations is a good time for our government to rethink its torture or cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees, as well as other deviations from standard judicial procedure. Besides being morally wrong, here is why these policies are bad:

1. Such policies are against U.S. law. Harold Hongju Koh, Dean of the Yale Law School, testified eloquently on this point in the Gonzalez confirmation hearings ( No person, not even an enemy combatant is outside the law, despite this administration’s arguments to that effect. Jordan Paust’s book gives the most extensive discussion with which I am familiar.
2. These tactics hurt our troops in several ways. First it renders them more likely to be subjected to the same treatment. Second, torture makes it more difficult to gain the trust of he local population, as Iraq veteran Paul Rieckhoff pointed out ( Third, the possibility of harsh treatment makes enemy soldiers less likely to surrender and more likely to fight to the death ( Rieckhoff’s essay is not only eloquent, but he speaks from a position of authority.
3. Torture provides the information that the torturer wishes to hear, not necessarily the truth. John McCain’s experiences in Viet Nam give one example of this. The false information obtained from suspected Al-Qaeda terrorist Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi on the supposed Iraqi chemical weapons was used to justify the war in Iraq. This incident is only demonstrates how damaging it is to our nation to torture information out of suspects. Another example in the treatment of Abu Zubaydah. Ron Suskind gives an account of some of our practices in “The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11.”
The highest profile example of false confessions was probably the Central Park jogger rape case ( If one accepts that there is such a thing as a false confession, then it is inescapable that the problem will worsen when the interrogation methods are “enhanced.” Finally, unlike a more disinterested interrogator, the torturer has an enormous stake in believing that the intelligence he or she gleans is true: The torturer would have to confront that his or her objectionable actions served no purpose if the intelligence were lies told only for the sake of ending the pain, a colossal problem of cognitive dissonance.
4. These practices alienate our allies and our potential allies around the world. Iraqi support for the invasion dropped precipitously immediately after the Abu Ghraib photographs were published. The editorial page of the Economist wrote (11 January 2003), “The taboo against torture is also strongly and deeply supported by western public opinion. If America, covertly or openly, begins to use torture systematically against al-Qaeda suspects, there is bound to be a backlash, both at home and abroad. Many
of the subjects might be innocent people, which would be morally repellent--and
would hand a propaganda victory to Islamic extremists.”
5. These practices are inconsistent with the fundamental conservative tenet of not discarding principles and practices that have served us well since the time of the Revolutionary war. Our nation has been a leader in the humane treatment of prisoners in armed conflicts, starting with George Washington and continuing through WW II and Korea. Is Al-Qaeda a more dangerous enemy than Germany or Japan was in the 1940s?

These reasons make a compelling case for altering our present, seriously misguided course. Finally I should mention two treatments of the ticking time bomb scenario. I have reviewed Dr. Brecher’s indispensible book on this subject in an earlier post (12 December 2008), and Michael Kinsley’s article in Slate is an insightful response to Charles Krauthammer’s position ( The discussion of the arguments for and against torture here is abbreviated by intention; however, I will expand on some of these points, especially the ticking bomb rationale in subsequent posts.

“The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11,” by Ron Suskind.
“Beyond the Law,” by Jordan J. Paust.
“A Question of Torture,” Alfred McCoy.
“The Guantanamo Files,” by Andy Worthington.
“The Dark Side,” Jane Mayer.
“Torture and the Ticking Bomb” by Bob Brecher.
“Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side,” by Clive Stafford Smith.
“Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power,” by Joseph Margulies.

The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
Standard Operating Procedure
Taxi to the Dark Side


Debrah said...

Chris, this is an issue like no other.

It's a moving target and one can come to view it this way, or that way, depending on what prism you're looking through.

Christopher Hitchens was very pro-war, but now that public sentiment has turned against it, he's off on this tangent as a way to slowly crawl back onto a more "liberal" journalistic battlefield.

Keep in mind that those who are honed to kill and gladly sacrifice their own people in order to destroy the West and, most certainly, to see that every Jew as well as Israel are destroyed, are well-prepared physically for those tasks.

Hitchens is out-of-shape. The most rigorous task he's performed in decades is to uncork a bottle of wine.

Of course, he would call water-boarding "torture". The article linked above is more self-serving.

I usually adore Hitchens' writing; however, this offering illustrates how this issue can be distorted toward subjective ends.

Like so many, he was earlier in agreement with methods used on known terrorists with information that would save the lives of innocent American targets.

I understand totally where you are coming from. I just disagree that one can even entertain the thought of placing Radical Islamic terrorists on the same level as a prisoner of war captured by the enemy.

You can "negotiate" with these people and make yourself feel better; however, you will find, ultimately, that you have no agreement.

This is not a conventional war.

The usual methods will not suffice.

Anonymous said...

One would have thought when I was growing up that we would not even have to make these arguments. The very idea of using torture was seen as being outside the very experience of being American.

Once upon a time, it was self-evident as to why we don't employ methods of torture. Apparently, Americans no longer understand the very reasons as to why we should not do these things. Thus, I am glad you posted this if only to remind us of what we should have known.