This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 528-page executive summary of its report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Unsurprisingly, there has been much discussion in the media and online about the report and its findings. Twitter has been talking about it for days and #TortureReport is still trending. The beauty (and sometimes evil) of Twitter is that we are exposed to a diversity of viewpoints many of which do not reflect our own. As I have sifted through the torture report conversation, I found it curious that many of the report’s detractors dismiss its conclusions for largely the same reasons. While not necessarily representative of the opposition, two similar themes struck me as both pervasive and, quite frankly, wrong. As such, I couldn’t resist refuting them here.
It is alarming that so many people on Twitter (and elsewhere, I’m sure) defend the use of torture on the basis that because terrorists torture people, the United States must as well. Two related arguments underpin this logic. First, a retributive argument that those tortured deserved it for their association with those that perpetrated 9/11. Second, an argument that since terrorists like Al Qaeda and ISIS do not hesitate to torture, the United States should not have to restrain itself from employing similar methods.
The second argument is particularly alarming because it essentially equates American morality with terrorist morality and I am astounded that those making this argument are comfortable with that. So much of the Global War on Terror rhetoric has centered on the idea that groups like Al Qaeda hate American freedoms and values. President Bush said in his address to Congress on September 20, 2001: “We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.” If we assume that American principles are vastly different from terrorist principles, it seems very odd to argue in favour of the adoption of terrorist-like principles. I don’t always agree with Senator McCain, but his speech to the Senate this week made me want to give him a standing ovation. He makes several important points, which are made all the more powerful given his previous POW experience, but perhaps his most precise rebuttal to the such logic was as follows: “Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”
It is easier to understand the emotion behind the first argument – that those who were tortured deserved it – but the position is equally flawed. 26 of the 199 detainees who were tortured were innocent, or at least not affiliated with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. The report also claims that the program included “two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” The impulse for retribution even years after a horrific attack is natural but that doesn’t mean that it will achieve anything meaningful.
Which brings me to my final point. Most of the arguments in favour of torture rely on the faulty assumption that torture works. It doesn’t. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that torture is an ineffective intelligence gathering tool as extreme pain and stress impairs memory. The torture report itself casts significant doubt on whether any actionable intelligence was gleaned from the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees. Moreover, evidence (uncovered by a former professor and employer of mine) suggests that human rights violations like torture may actually increase violence.
There is no shortage of moral and pragmatic reasons to oppose torture. I always strive to be open-minded and rarely believe issues are black-and-white. But I have a hard time seeing the report’s findings as anything other than damning evidence of the inhumanity and inefficacy of torture. I should also note that while we condemn the use of torture by the United States, we have to remember that its allies are not without fault. Canada is one of 54 countries that participated in the CIA’s rendition program. Our hands are not clean and this report should remind all of us that fact.