Torture's Moral Toll
If waterboarding works, The Daily Beast’s Conor Friedersdorf wonders, why is it that the U.S. keeps triumphing over nations that torture?
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care that the laws of the United States forbid torture, and whose moral code is summed up by the phrase “the end justifies the means,” you may be more interested than most in a recent Washington Post story headlined “How a Detainee Became an Asset: Sept. 11 Plotter Cooperated After Waterboarding.” The story concerns the interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a principal architect of the 9/11 attacks also complicit in many of the most significant terrorist atrocities of the last 20 years. Only if he is cannibalized in Dante’s ninth circle of hell will his punishment fit his crimes.
The Washington Post reader is reminded that KSM was diapered, shackled, deprived of sleep for seven days, and waterboarded 183 times. “The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting detainees to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less-coercive methods would have achieved the same result,” reporter Peter Finn writes. “But for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken.”
In praising the treatment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and arguing that it ought to be standard detainee policy, conservative pundits never consider the significant strategic drawbacks to the tactic of torture—like eliciting false intelligence that squanders man hours; the fact that a torture policy causes some upstanding intelligence professionals to resign; that torture pushes more Muslims into the radical camp, increases anti-American sentiments, aids terrorist recruiting efforts, and undermines support for the war on terror even among significant numbers of Americans.
A cadre of conservative writers, normally loathe to trust the Post’s reporting, quickly pronounced the piece definitive evidence that the practices they refuse to call torture “work.” National Review’s Andy McCarthy, a former assistant U.S. attorney, offers an instructive example. The mainstream media has spent the last five years “arguing against experience and common sense that tactics like sleep-deprivation and waterboarding were not effective,” he wrote. “Clearly, they worked, and to great effect… that case should now be closed.”
He goes on:
"Obviously, there is still a principled argument to be made that the nation should not engage in such practices. But the burden of making it in a principled way should be to say: "While this is an excruciating choice, it would be better for thousands of Americans to be killed than to allow the CIA to use non-lethal coercive tactics (that cause no lasting physical or mental damage) on a terrorist who refuses to tell us what he knows about ongoing mass-murder plots."
Not so fast. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that waterboarding and sleep deprivation sometimes elicit accurate intelligence—and even that waterboarding an imprisoned man 183 times causes “no lasting mental damage,” a suspect proposition for which there is no evidence.
Mr. McCarthy and all those for whom he speaks make a myopic assumption: that if even one tortured terrorist reveals useful intelligence, the general policy of “enhanced interrogation” is strategically vindicated. But what if a torture regime produces good intelligence in the short term, even as it results in sundry strategic disasters that on balance make us less safe?
In praising the treatment of KSM, and arguing that it ought to be standard detainee policy, McCarthy and like-minded pundits never consider the significant strategic drawbacks to the tactic of torture—among them eliciting false intelligence that squanders man hours; the fact that a torture policy causes some upstanding intelligence professionals to resign, and others to remove themselves from interrogations, hurting our capacity to gather good intelligence; that torture pushes more Muslims into the radical camp, increases anti-American sentiments, aids terrorist recruiting efforts, and undermines support for the war on terror even among significant numbers of Americans; that it causes allied countries to cooperate less with our counterterrorism efforts; that it reduces the morale of soldiers and intelligence professionals; and that “enhanced interrogation techniques” have demonstrably bled into military prisons, undermining our mission in a critical theater and leading to the rightful imprisonment of American soldiers, who were denounced even by the Bush administration.
What kind of national-security analyst ignores all that to argue that because KSM was waterboarded, sleep deprived, and later gave some useful information, the strategic case for “enhanced interrogation” is definitely vindicated?
Though I cannot say definitively whether torture is or isn’t an effective utilitarian tool, I am mightily influenced Jim Manzi’s observation that “we keep beating” torturing nations. “The regimes in the modern world that have used systematic torture and directly threatened the survival of the United States—Nazi Germany, WWII-era Japan, and the Soviet Union—have been annihilated, while we are the world’s leading nation,” he writes. “The list of other torturing nations… has won no competition worth winning. The classically liberal nations of Western Europe, North America, and the Pacific that led the move away from systematic government-sponsored torture are the world’s winners.”
In ongoing nuclear attacks against successive American cities, Mr. Manzi would support an effective torture regime—he doesn’t believe the practice is always immoral—but to those who argue that our present circumstances justify torture, he notes that even annual September 11-style attacks would threaten the average American with a mere 0.001 percent chance of death. “A republic demands courage—not foolhardy and unsustainable ‘principle at all costs’, but reasoned courage—from its citizens,” he writes. Demanding that risk be averted via official torture is pathetic, “the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.”
The cowardice happens to be questionable even as strategy, or so I gather from the fact that prominent backers of harsh interrogation haven't even bothered to analyze many of the factors that help determine whether it makes us more or less safe.
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind that the laws of the United States forbid torture, and whose moral code is summed up by the phrase “the end justifies the means,” that ought to cause you to reject the practice, pending proof that it does more good than harm. Those of us who object to torture on other grounds will be happy to count you provisional allies.
Conor Friedersdorf writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.