April 29, 2009

The Real Torture Debate

A torture rack, photographed in the Tower of L...
A torture rack, photographed in the Tower of London, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Too much time is being wasted in the debate over torture on the question of efficacy of torture. The question of whether torture works (i.e., whether it produces reliable and accurate intelligence information) has been definitively answered: Torture does NOT work. We know this from former FBI interrogators, national security officials, military personnel, CIA operatives, and from history itself. This is no longer a valid point of contention and it merely obscures where the real debate must take place.

Once we set aside the issue of torture's efficacy in obtaining the sort of intelligence on which we can rely, we need to debate the application of torture for other purposes. That is, should the U.S. be permitted to use torture to punish enemy combatants or elicit false but politically useful statements?

Don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting that such questions are worthy of debate, only that they are they are relevant questions which have received little debate thus far. We now know that torture methods were authorized by the Bush administration. This is not in dispute. We now know that clearly illegal tactics were approved and applied. We also know that such methods were used, at least in part, with the goal of linking al-Qaeda and Iraq despite the fact that the intelligence community had already concluded that there was no such link.

It seems to me that this is where the current debate must take place. Is it acceptable for the U.S. to use torture for political purposes? I suspect there are few outside Washington who would seriously argue in favor of such an application.

How about simple punishment and/or revenge? Like it or not, this one is more controversial. There are people right here in America who support the death penalty, knowing full well that it has no general deterrent effect. I have heard plenty of my fellow Americans, including some atheists, say that anyone involved in 9/11 should be tortured using the most brutal methods imaginable. Perhaps this is where the debate needs to occur.