The stupidity of torture
May 18, 2011
This is probably my most belligerent and exasperated blog post ever. Consider yourself forewarned.
I got myself into a couple of Facebook arguments recently, in which I’m not sure how much I accomplished, and which served mainly to undermine my regard for humanity. Apparently, after Osama bin Laden’s assassination a couple weeks ago, it was said by some on the political right that information we obtained by “harsh interrogation methods,” allowed us to find him. And I don’t even know enough about the chain of events to judge whether it’s true or not, but it hardly matters to my opinion: if it is true, then it wasn’t worth it. We paid too high a price in our own humanity and national honor. I would rather never have caught him, and let him die holed up in his little fortress, than have stooped to that level, morally, to get to him.
And if it isn’t true, then the argument is even more malevolent for being a lie.
So I really don’t care whether the practice of torture allowed us to catch bin Laden.
But I’ve already learned the immensely frustrating way that apologists for torture aren’t swayed by ethical arguments, or legal ones. There is always some end that justifies the means or legal loophole or illusory ticking time bomb.
I’ve only got one more argument:
The use of torture isn’t just weak, unconstitutional, un-American, illegal, immoral, and un-Christian. (Did I miss anything?) It’s stupid. It makes us as a country look brutish, and it makes its supporters look unintelligent.
It demonstrates an utter lack of foresight, of historical memory, and of imagination. You’d have to be totally unable to imagine yourself in the place of an innocent torture victim—swept up in a dragnet in the midst of civil unrest, at the mercy of a regime desperate to quash dissent or inconvenient criticism, the resident of an invaded country whose invaders understand neither your language nor culture very well but are convinced that you must know something that they want to know. And while it’s true, practically speaking, that you’re probably fairly safe from those circumstances here in America (for the time being, anyway), that’s only by sheer accident of birth. It’s not by any virtue or deserving of your own that you were born here, and not in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent. It’s luck of the draw.
Look back—how do we regard countries and regimes which engaged in torture? As evil. They all had high ideals. They all saw their own goals as ultimately good and so justified ignoring the human implications. But it’s their actions that reveal them for what they really were. So how is the future going to look back on us and this sorry decade in our history?
Look forward—what we do to the world and to other people comes back to us, one way or another, over and over again. You have to have not been paying very much attention not to have noticed this, or not been alive for very long. Or maybe I’m just better at pattern recognition. But we do reap what we sow. What if America finds itself in some kind of serious danger in the future; what will it do for our chances of finding support or cooperation from other countries if they know that when push comes to shove, we’ll behave just as badly as our enemies?
It’s arrogant, and arrogance is always shortsighted and dumb. It pretends that we know more than we can; I’ve heard the attempted excuse that we only torture people who we know are bad guys, or who we know (feel the sarcasm) have some kind of vital information but don’t want to give it up. But our record doesn’t support this confidence. See story of Maher Arar above, or look at the US justice system’s record of having to release people who turned out to have been wrongfully convicted of major crimes. And those are people who’ve had a lawful trial in which all available and legally admissible evidence was supposed to have been presented. Most of the people we’re interrogating at GITMO have not. We’re seriously not good at realizing what we don’t know.
Anyway, sorry to sound belligerent and angry. It’s tiring and it doesn’t make me feel good. It’s just that I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this stuff, and it makes me really sad.