Rationalizing Torture

When it comes to harsh interrogation methods, the ends do not justify the means


Americans are practical people, which is why they tend to pay heed when Dick Cheney says the harsh methods used by the CIA on suspected terrorists were not merely efficacious but indispensable. The intelligence derived from these interrogations, he assures us, "saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks."

Did they really? The report released Monday, done by the CIA's inspector general back in 2004, didn't support Cheney's claim. It said "there is no doubt" that the detention and questioning of detainees "has been effective."

But the report reached no judgment on "enhanced interrogation techniques," saying, "The effectiveness of particular interrogation techniques in eliciting information that might not otherwise have been obtained cannot be so easily measured."

Most conservatives, however, don't want to hear any naysaying. They have lined up in vociferous defense of the Bush administration and every tool it adopted in the war on terrorism. And they are up in arms over Atty. Gen. Eric Holder's decision to open a preliminary inquiry into whether laws were broken by the CIA.

In this, they have two basic lines of argument. The first is to mock the idea that anything done by the agency amounted to torture. A Wall Street Journal editorial said, "Millions of Americans will be shocked to learn that these unshocking details are all that the uproar over 'torture' is about." In the New York Post, Ralph Peters groused that the CIA was being castigated for "rudeness to mass murderers."

But there is really no doubt that the agency engaged in severe cruelty. No less an authority than last year's Republican presidential nominee regards waterboarding as torture. The IG's report noted that though the method was permitted under specified conditions, the interrogators overstepped those limits.

It was not the only brutal practice. The report says a CIA officer choked a prisoner till he was nearly unconscious—then revived him so he could be choked some more. It says an interrogator revved a power drill to frighten a naked, hooded prisoner. CIA personnel reportedly lifted one detainee up by his arms, which were tied behind his back, causing one employee to fear his shoulders would be dislocated.

The agency's guidelines, we learn, authorize interrogators to slam a prisoner up against the wall "20 or 30 times consecutively." They may force captives to stay awake for as long as 180 hours—seven and a half days. They may force them to stand or kneel in painful positions for long periods.

If none of that shocks you, consider this: More than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody over the last eight years, and the CIA has been implicated in some of the deaths. Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey says dozens of prisoners were "murdered."

The other conservative defense is that these methods were used only against people who had it coming. "They are terrorists who killed hundreds and thousands of Americans," insisted Seth Leibsohn on National Review Online.

But being innocent was no protection against violent abuse. CIA officers told the IG that accusations "unsupported by credible intelligence may have resulted in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques without justification." (my emphasis)

Innocent, guilty—what difference does it make? To many people, anything the government does is justified if it might save American lives. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, put it baldly: "We should do whatever we have to do."

He would get an argument from Ronald Reagan, who signed an international ban on torture, which made no allowances for grave security threats. "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture," it says.

Reagan undoubtedly knew what modern conservatives forget—that once you rationalize torture, there is no logical place to stop. If threatening a prisoner with a power drill is permissible, why not drilling holes in him? If choking is OK, why not strangulation? If threatening to kill a detainee's children passes muster, why not actually killing them? If 30 wall slams don't do the job, why not 100?

Many modern conservatives, unlike Reagan, are willing to incinerate every civilized principle to avert the possibility of harm—and they think the public agrees. But if that's true, let's stop pretending America is the home of the brave.