A Torturous Debate

Let's have some humility in the debate over interrogation methods


The release of the Justice Department "torture memos" has reignited the debate over the interrogation methods used by the Bush administration on terror suspects and the possibility of charges against officials who may have violated the ban on torture. As often happens, each side has not only its own opinions but its own version of reality. Bush administration defenders claim that brutal interrogations have saved countless lives, eliciting information that prevented new, post-September 11 terror attacks on U.S. soil. Critics counter that the methods authorized by the Bush Justice Department not only tarnished our image and made us more vulnerable by fanning the flames of anti-Americanism but also produced a lot of false data. Whatever genuinely valuable intelligence was gained by those means, they assert, could have been obtained in other ways.

It is doubtful that the disputed facts will ever be resolved, no matter how many more memos are released. This is a dispute about what-ifs, and proving or disproving what-ifs is an exercise in nailing the proverbial Jell-O to the wall. What's more, each side has a strong stake in proving its own righteousness and depicting the opponent as not merely wrong but evil. No benefit of the doubt is given as to motive. To bloggers on the left, the Bush-Cheney cabal authorized torture because they are power-drunk sadists. To bloggers on the right, Obama has authorized the disclosure of the memos because he is a power-drunk egotist intent on disparaging his predecessor no matter what the cost to the country.

At this point, the fullest disclosure possible is almost certainly the right decision. The existence of "enhanced interrogation" and the fact that it included abusive techniques has been widely known for several years. Under such circumstances, precise information is nearly always preferable to speculation. Still, in the latest CBS News poll, 62% of Americans—including 51% of Democrats and 60% of independents—oppose congressional hearings on the issue. There is likely to be even less appetite for prosecutions.

In a column in the British paper, The Guardian, writer Naomi Wolf argues that calls for prosecution of CIA agents who carried out the interrogations amount to hypocritical scapegoating. She points out that Democratic congressional leaders knew about and abetted these policies and that, for a while after September 11, a "mass consensus" of the American public supported torture to some degree. (In a December 2005 Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 61% of Americans said torture could be justified at least on rare occasions; slightly over half of people polled in France and Great Britain took the same view.)

Wolf nonetheless advocates prosecutions—of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the Justice Department legal advisors who provided justification for inhumane interrogation methods. But doesn't this, too, smack of scapegoating if their actions reflected a broad consensus? Of course, Wolf also treats the post-September 11 consensus as little more than vindictive, sadistic machismo. Could it have something to do with the fact that the United States was facing a unique threat—a stateless, shapeless, protean enemy which had just killed over 3,000 Americans in a single morning in two major cities in the United States? Is it so irrational that stopping another attack was the top priority?

While defenders of torture egregiously overuse visions of ticking time bombs, it would be too convenient to dismiss a scenario in which coercive interrogation—perhaps waterboarding—might be the only chance to avert an attack that would cause thousands to die in agony. Can any anti-torture absolutist say with full certainty that, faced with such a situation as President, he or she would stick to principle—and defend that choice to the American people if the attack happened?

This does not change the fact that torture, including torture by any other name, is a deal with the devil. Permitting cruelty toward helpless prisoners, no matter how guilty of barbaric acts, is liable to bring out the worst in people—and, in many cases, it has. Witness right-wing posters on various websites who sneeringly brush off protections for prisoners' human rights as sissy stuff. Experience, in the U.S. and in other countries, also shows that once you have legally authorized abusive interrogations in extreme emergencies, there is a strong tendency to define extreme emergency down until such methods are used far more widely than originally intended. And, while it would be absurd to suggest that the jihadists who behead people with dull knives hate us because of torture, there is little doubt that revelations of the inhumane treatment of captives provoked anti-American hostility among ordinary Iraqis.

There has to be an accounting for the things our government has done in the name of our safety. This accounting must be fair, and as transparent as it can be without compromising national security—but it must also be conducted with humility. So far, that is how Obama has handled the issue. The same cannot be said for the crusaders from the ranks of punditry.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.com.