Torture. It’s tough enough to compose the word on the keyboard without having to put it in the same sentence as the United States. But it seems increasingly clear that the United States did practice torture as part of official policy. The case made in these two Wall Street Journal articles contesting that conclusion (here and here) essentially rests on the idea that a perfect simulation of torture — one that creates the psychological effect on the victim that he is in fact being tortured — can somehow be distinguished from the act itself. But that argument would make mock executions — of which waterboarding is considered a subset — palatable, even though they are included in most definitions of torture. (In fact, according to Amnesty International, they are the most common form of torture.)
There is still some uncertainty as to whether the actual use of torture by U.S. interrogators resulted in any actionable intelligence. If it did, it would be an exception to the historically proven rule that torture is an unreliable method of interrogation. But would that justify its use in this case? To argue that it would has two very dangerous consequences.
First, it would set U.S. national security in direct opposition to U.S. principles of democratic government. Those that dismiss this as a civil liberties nicety ignore the centrality of U.S. ideals in any claim to American Exceptionalism. Indeed, the very idea that America has a unique role to play as a global leader rests on the fact that we champion the universally applicable ideals of freedom from tyranny and despotism, ideals that distinguish us historically from most of the world’s great powers. Torture is such a sadly common human practice that the only thing that keeps it from becoming banal is the moral opprobrium attached to it. By engaging in it ourselves, we have abandoned what has made us exceptional to date, and weakened the legitimacy of our moral opposition to it in the future.
Second, the utilitarian justification of torture recognizes no legal, moral or international boundaries. In this regard, it’s already been pointed out that using torture as an element of U.S. policy subjects our own nationals to the threat of such practices being used against them abroad. But the utilitarian justification of torture also weakens the moral ramparts that protect U.S. citizens from such practices at the hands of our own government at home. Jose Padilla is already an example of the logic guiding the War on Terror being turned against a U.S. citizen. But nothing distinguishes the lives that might be saved from an imminentschool shooting or gangland war from those threatened by a terroristplot. If the practices used by the CIA are not torture, or if they are justified by a “ticking timebomb” scenario even if they are, then there is no logical argument preventing them from being used domestically in such cases where loss of life might be prevented.
The threat posed to domestic civil liberties is no less real for being distant and theoretical. The genius of the Founders lies in their understanding that while tyranny and despotism reach their mature form in the unfettered use of absolute power by bad men, both are born from the exceptional and prudent use of such powers by good men. That’s why the Founders put those powers beyond the reach of simple majorities born of inflamed public opinion, by enshrining the protections against them in the Constitution.
It’s a relief that the actions of the Obama administration have for now put an end to the use of such practices. But to make certain they are not simply put back in the tool chest for the time being only to be brought back out later, but are instead dismantled and abandoned, we must address the wrongs committed. There are strong arguments to be made in favor of both criminal prosecution and a “truth commission” approach, and weaknesses to both approaches as well. Either course represents a moment of decision, one that will certainlyprove stormy and divisive.
But by far, the worst of all the options is to maintain that we did no wrong, or to acknowledge that we did, but do nothing about it. To do so would do more damage to our international standing than bringing the crimes to light already has. And it would do nothing to address the threat to domestic civil liberties that has already been unchained.