I disagree with Tom’s post about torture. I think Josh Marshall was making an important point, one made a little more eloquently here by Kevin Drum. Perhaps he didn’t articulate it well, but I think it’s important to get it straight, because it’s key to a strong defense of the position that we should not torture.
While I agree that torture almost never yields valuable information, like Marshall, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that torturing someone will gather useful intelligence. The reason I’m willing to do so is because I’m not interested in arguing whether there might be a case somewhere in history where torture led to important intelligence. The argument I want to have is whether a policy of torture is one we ought to adopt, and that’s a far broader question than whether it might work on rare occasion.
Let’s start with principle, then. Why don’t we torture? Because torture is diminishes our humanity — because in any and all instances we have a basic duty to ourselves, our allies and our enemies to treat all human beings in our custody with dignity. Not torturing, specifically the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”, is as key a part of the Bill of Rights as freedom of speech. It’s codified in laws governing conduct of our citizens, and in military regulations governing our treatment of non-citizens. Not torturing is both a founding principle and the law of the land, and Guantanamo and Bagram and all other places where we tortured people exist because some actors in the Bush administration knew damn well that they needed to hide their horrible deeds from the law.
After this first principle, and the laws that come from it, the next practical argument against torture is that it diminishes our standing in the world, which I don’t think requires a lot of argument, considering that we’re constantly inveighing against regimes that torture and have signed treaties prohibiting it.
These first two arguments are absolute, and there’s no “ticking time bomb” scenario that can be used to argue against them. Our deeply held principles are true no matter what Jack Bauer did in some episode of his show, and our national standing is hurt by us torturing regardless of whether we gleaned some nugget from waterboarding KSM.
The reason that we’re always hearing arguments about efficacy instead of principle or national standing is because that weak argument is the only place that torture proponents can put a stake in the ground. Once in a while, though rarely, and almost cetainly not in the case of Osama bin Laden’s killing, torture may work. So, they argue, we should make it our policy. The simple answer to that is that even if it works in some rare scenario, it’s not worth sacrificing a 250-year-old principle and our national standing for the tiny, fleeting benefit that may come from it. We’re America, and we’re better than that.