In my post following the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture, I raised some doubts about the committee’s finding that torture had never been effective since 9/11. I suggested that the majority Democrats on the committee may have overstated their conclusion as to torture’s ineffectiveness because they were reluctant to confront the question of torture’s morality. If torture is completely ineffective, then there is no moral issue because there is no possible justification for torture. But what if torture is sometimes effective? If torture does offer some hope of generating information that can save the lives of potential future victims of terror, then there is a moral issue of means and ends that needs to be confronted: ugly means have to be weighed against laudable ends.  But that calls for a tough moral judgment call; it’s much easier to say simply that torture just never works.

I had only read snippets of the committee report, but Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole has done a much more thorough job, including a reading of the CIA’s self-defense.  His assessment confirms my impression that the Democrats hadn’t completely proved their case: it does seem that torture may have yielded useful intelligence on a number of occasions.   Cole is no apologist for torture: he believes that even if it is sometimes effective, it is and should be illegal, and he deplores the fact that no one in the Bush administration was prosecuted for their crimes. I agree with him, but I think Cole, like the Senate Democrats, fails to deal adequately with the moral issue, which he seems to think requires no discussion: torture is simply wrong–end of story.   He quotes David Bromwich: “…[A]sking whether torture works is like asking whether slavery works. It’s the wrong question.” But the analogy with slavery is specious. Slavery extracted labor from its victims in order to enrich the slaveowner. Torture ostensibly seeks to extract information from its victims in order to save other people’s lives.

So, it is relevant and important to ask whether or not torture is effective. But it is not sufficient for torture advocates to show that torture sometimes yields usable information.   The possibility of obtaining credible information that may be useful at some future date in preventing a possible future act of terror is just not good enough.   Torture is such a horrible, palpable evil that an act of torture can only be justified if there can be a very high degree of confidence that it will yield urgently needed, reliable intelligence.   That only happens…well, actually, it doesn’t happen. The famous “ticking time bomb” scenario–we somehow know that a major terrorist act somewhere is imminent, and we have a detainee who we know has reliable knowledge of the terrorists’ plans—has never occurred in real life. Given the unreality of the ticking time bomb scenario, it is safe to say that torture is never justified.


One comment

  1. Mel Brender February 26, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. The separate issues of effectiveness and morality of torture are rarely dealt with as clearly as this.

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