By David K. Shipler
(Published on The New Yorker's News Desk, online, May 5, 2011)
Advocates of torture who enjoy tormenting the rest of us with the hypothetical ticking-bomb scenario might be tested with the counter-hypothetical proposed by Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard. In his 2009 book, “Justice,” Sandel writes,
“Suppose the only way to induce the terrorist suspect to talk is to torture his young daughter (who has no knowledge of her father’s nefarious activities). Would it be morally permissible to do so?”
It would be interesting to hear the answer from those who are hauling the country back into the repugnant debate over whether torture “works.”
Because such utilitarianism is the only aspect of torture that they are willing to consider, the discussion—such as it is—has turned on what slender strands of evidence about Osama bin Laden’s courier were produced by “enhanced interrogation.”
This may never be known definitively without the declassification of documents, sworn testimony by participants, and an investigation by something equivalent to the committee Senator Frank Church of Idaho chaired in 1975 and 1976. The Church Committee compiled a thorough record of illegal domestic spying and dirty tricks against anti-war and civil-rights activists, among others, leading to the passage of an array of privacy laws, most of which were weakened, twenty-five years later, by the Patriot Act. (I’ve written a book about the give-and-take over safety and liberty, “The Rights of the People.”) But neither Congress nor President Obama is inclined to impanel such a commission. Instead, since bin Laden’s death, Americans have been left to listen as Dick Cheney and others have tried to rub the tarnish of torture off their own reputations. Cheney suggested that “it wouldn’t be surprising if in fact that program produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture.” Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said flatly that waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had dislodged information on the courier.
That this appears to be a caricature of the truth is beside the point. It is a renewed attempt to revive the Bush Administration’s reign of pragmatism over morality. The two need to be separated, as ends and means are divided in assessing personal behavior.
First, the pragmatic argument is far from settled—it’s not clear that torture works. Professional interrogators came forward under Bush to denounce torture as unproductive, even self-defeating, for it can induce phony confessions and misleading statements, sending investigators or counterterrorist teams on fruitless diversions. We have seen this in the criminal-justice system, where the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against coercive interrogation, if observed, helps guard against erroneous prosecutions. False confessions figured in about twenty per cent of the two hundred sixty-six convictions that have been reversed based on DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project’s count. And that’s just in the cases where DNA evidence is available—a small minority.
Second, morality ought to be a comfortable pedestal for torture opponents. But there is something coarse and brutish about the public forum in America these days that undermines the moral footing and pulls those objecting to the abuse of prisoners down to low arguments about whether it works. They can hold their own in that fight, because there is a convenient alternative to torture: humane treatment. “One has to ‘go to school’ on each captive,” Colonel Stuart Herrington, a retired army intelligence officer who advised teams at Guantánamo, wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the height of the debate, in 2007. He and his teams “collected mountains of excellent, verified information” in Vietnam, Panama, and the first Gulf War, he said, by learning the prisoner’s beliefs and fears, his hatreds and his loyalties, his family details and his “core vulnerability.”
But what if torture were the only way? Then the moral question would have to be engaged—and in a healthier debate. It would have to be about the terror suspect’s little daughter.
It would also be about us. Vladimir Bukovsky, the human-rights campaigner and veteran of Soviet prisons and psychiatric hospitals, warned Americans in 2005 about Russian torturers who descended into alcohol, drugs, criminal violence, or domestic abuse. He wrote in the Washington Post: “How can you force your officers and your young people in the C.I.A. to commit acts that will scar them forever? For scarred they will be, take my word for it.”
The notion that the United States can be hermetically sealed from its abuse of prisoners abroad is fanciful, as illustrated by investigations into torture committed by Chicago police from the early nineteen-seventies into the nineties. One method, hooking wires from a hand-cranked generator to various parts of suspects’ bodies, was nicknamed the “Vietnam special” or the “Vietnamese treatment.” In Vietnam, where an Army field phone had been used on prisoners, it had been called the “Bell Telephone hour.” The Chicago unit’s commander, Jon Burge, had served in Vietnam in a military-police company. He was convicted last year of perjury in connection with the torture in Chicago. We can only hope that the interrogators who have tortured terrorist suspects since 9/11 do not, or have not, become police officers.