Talking About The Efficacy Of Torture

The media is still buzzing with news of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s interrogation program – or as it’s more commonly referred to, the Torture Report. Former CIA director Michael Hayden appeared on CNN to offer a heinous defense of rectal rehydration, among other things. Dick Cheney stated unequivocally on Meet The Press that he has no regrets regarding the program and that he would “do it again in a minute.” Cheney’s defense of the program rests mainly on his conviction that he has no problem with such “enhanced interrogation” methods “so long as we achieve our objective, and our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.” It is frustrating that Cheney does not see the contradiction inherent in this argument. The report contests the idea that the CIA detention and interrogation program produced actionable intelligence. That is to say, it did not achieve its objectives. Presumably, Cheney has objections to specific interpretations that the report makes, thus justifying his position. But still, the findings of the report are corroborated by psychological and social science research that suggests that in general torture does not produce accurate results. (I provided just a few examples in a previous blog post.)

There are many who agree with Cheney and continue to defend the use of torture by the United States for reasons that I mentioned earlier. On the flip side, an equally vigorous debate has sprung up among those who are opposed to torture (both in general and in the specific case of the post/9/11 CIA program). This debate is concerned with what place efficacy has in a debate on torture. I have noticed several people on my Twitter feed are deeply concerned that we are even talking about whether such morally repugnant actions worked. They argue that this is beside the point because torture is morally wrong, against the values of the United States and thus it frankly does not matter if the program did or did not achiev its objectives. To focus on the efficacy of torture is a dangerous precedent that may validate an ethically questionable “ends justifies the means” attitude.

This perspective makes a lot of sense to me. Moreover, those expressing such a perspective are generally people whose thoughts and opinions I admire and respect. I still admire and respect these people, and read with interest most of what they post on Twitter (it’s why I’m following them) but on this point I have to disagree.

For the record, I agree with them wholeheartedly that torture is wrong and even if it had worked I would still be opposed to its use. But I have to concede that if we had solid evidence that torture worked, I think the subsequent “do the ends justifies the means?” debate is both unavoidable and, unfortunately, valid. When we talk about the Geneva Conventions, rights for prisoners of war, the distinction between combatants vs. noncombatants, and yes, torture, we are by definition engaging in a debate on where we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour during conflict. That conversation is uncomfortable and unpleasant but deeply necessary. In order to shape the norms that govern war, we have to talk about why something is unacceptable. While I wish that the use of torture would cease on the sole basis that it is morally abhorrent, that hasn’t happened. The United States is party to the UN Convention against Torture but as we have learned that hasn’t stopped the United States from torturing people. Thus, the point that torture does not work is a boon to those of us who argue against it. As Dan Drezner commented in a Washington Post piece last week, “The trouble with debating torture’s efficacy is that if it turns out that information extracted from torture can be tactically useful, then advocates will be able to make their case more effectively in public discourse. On the other hand, if the debate takes place strictly on the moral and ethical plane, anti-torture advocates will feel on firmer ground.”

Yesterday, in an article for Slate, Jamelle Bouie discussed another reason why torture is difficult for the United States government to disavow for purely moral reasons. The nature of American public opinion with respect to incarceration and torture is largely retributive and punitive. This attitude was evident in the online conversation that occurred after the torture report was published. Many individuals expressed a profound lack of remorse for the tortured on the basis that they deserved it. It seems unlikely then that arguing against torture for moral reasons will succeed in changing public opinion.

It’s a bit depressing to think that we have to substantiate an anti-torture stance with empirical evidence but such is the case with polarizing issues. Sometimes setting emotion aside and dealing with the pragmatic is the only way to break gridlock since both sides usually believe they are in the moral right. The process of getting to policy that is both effective and morally sound can involve a lot of uncomfortable debate like whether or not an end justifies a means. In the case of torture, if it can be demonstrated that an end was not achieved at all, then perhaps we will have greater success advocating for its abolition.