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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Justifying torture: America’s other favorite pastime

    I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore.

    Why do we have to live in a country that actually debates the merits of institutionalized torture?

    President George W. Bush vetoed a bill Saturday which would have restricted the CIA to using only those interrogation techniques specified by the U.S. Army field manual of interrogation. The manual complies with the Geneva Convention’s regulations for respecting prisoners’ rights, and the FBI condemns harsher techniques as ineffective and unnecessary. Yet Mr. Bush justified his veto, claiming that restricting the CIA to these methods would endanger U.S. citizens by denying our protectors the “”tools they need”” to fight terrorism.

    Those who support interrogators resorting to tactics like threatening death by drowning (used on the “”9/11 mastermind”” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) contend that this is permissible when circumstances demand weighing a suspect’s rights against those of many innocents who could be saved by revealed information.

    But many would argue that it’s shameful to live in a country that does not do everything in its power to eradicate torture on categorical moral grounds. We might claim that torture is not justifiable under any circumstances because of the sanctity of human life.

    Ironically, this categorical moral argument is strikingly similar to the one Mr. Bush and his supporters tend to rely on when condemning abortion. Our president wants to have his human cake and torture it too – apparently we should not consider extenuating circumstances and the rights of others (mothers, siblings) where abortion is concerned because of the supreme sanctity of human life, but when it comes to suspects under interrogation, vague predictions of possible threat to innocents are enough to take them skinny dipping the hard way.

    But let us assume – like good post-Kantians – that there are no hard and fast moral categories we can rely on to solve every dilemma.

    Let’s take the “”ticking time bomb”” argument seriously, conceding that torturing someone possessing information that, if found speedily, could spare thousands is an acceptable violation of human rights.

    The mere formation of this hypothetical is just the first step toward justifying institutionalized torture. If we’re willing to make allowances for the occasional overriding of human rights – and to be subjected to the contempt of the international community for Guantanamo Bay – we better be goddamn drowning ourselves in empirical evidence of instances where torture has prevented atrocities.

    What do we have instead? Mr. Bush’s assurance (reported in The New York Times on Sunday) that “”were it not for (the CIA’s interrogation program), our intelligence community believes that al-Qaida and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland,”” a claim that was directly refuted by Sen. John D. Rockefeller, chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

    Comb the Internet and books on the subject for historical examples in which use of torture has indisputably led to the prevention of many civilian deaths. I haven’t found a single one.

    Eleven-year-old Jakob von Metzer’s kidnapper was threatened with torture by German police in 2002; he told his interrogator where the boy was, but Jakob was already dead. In the 1977 European Court of Human Rights case Ireland v. United Kingdom, the U.K. could point to only two examples in which torture of Irish Republican Army operatives produced actionable intelligence (these were disputed, and Britain lost the case; type in “”torture justified”” at for more information).

    Much of the evidence actually comes out against torture as effective. Forensic psychologists have found that harsh interrogation generally does nothing but increase the amount of false information given (see Gisli Gudjonsson’s “”The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions””). And as Vittorio Bufacchi and Jean Maria Arrigo opined in the August 2006 issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy, using torture leads to the development of better countertorture resistance strategies by the enemy, which in turn call for new torture methods. Similar to a current biomedicinal problem, torture keeps us in a counterproductive “”arms race”” just as we scramble to find new cures for bacterial and viral strains that have evolved resistance to our drugs.

    In short, as Tolstoy once said of Nietzsche, torture is both “”stupid and abnormal”” (and immoral). There are better and more humane ways of procuring information from suspects, as Israeli interrogators have determined since Israel’s 1999 ban on torture. Let’s follow our allies’ lead and hold off on torture, at least until there is better evidence for its case.

    Daniel Sullivan is a senior majoring in German studies and psychology. He can be reached at

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