Torture and the bizarre new age of American ethics

Would you torture to save your family? That’s a question we shouldn’t ask.

When engaging in a discussion about the defensible merits of waterboarding, its supporters have taken a strange stance lately. Removing it from its nest as an âÄúessential toolâÄù of an intelligence-gathering apparatus, theyâÄôve decided to make it personal to bring its value home. To do this, they ask a simple question: âÄòWould you waterboard a terrorist to save your family?âÄô LetâÄôs pause for a minute before we answer this and instead ask a related (and very germane) question: is waterboarding torture? According to the Red Cross âÄî the group that enforces compliance with the Geneva Conventions and gets to make the call on such matters âÄî the answer is a loud âÄúobviously.âÄù Dr. Allen S. Keller, a physician who runs the Program for Survivors of Torture disagrees as well. In a September Senate hearing, Keller said, âÄúTo think that abusive methods, including the enhanced interrogation techniques are harmless psychological ploys is contradictory to well established medical knowledge and clinical experience. These methods are intended to break the prisoners down, to terrify them and cause harm to their psyche, and in so doing result in lasting harmful health consequences.âÄù And of course, Sen. John McCain, AmericaâÄôs most visible torture survivor, has said, âÄúAnyone who knows what waterboarding is could not be unsure. It is a horrible torture technique.âÄù YouâÄôll note he didnâÄôt say âÄúhorrible enhanced interrogation technique.âÄù But if these arguments are unconvincing, letâÄôs consider a slight variation on the question suggested at the beginning of the column: If a terrorist waterboarded a member of your family, how would it make you feel? If itâÄôs just an interrogation tool, thereâÄôs really no reason to get mad. After all, there is no law banning interrogations. I wonâÄôt pretend to speak for anyone else, but I would be pissed. I would feel like my loved one had been subjected to inhumane abuse that I would call torture, and I would want their torturer punished. So letâÄôs go back to where we started, and consider what this means. In principle, weâÄôre not just asking if we would waterboard a terrorist to save our family, weâÄôre asking a much darker question: Would you torture a terrorist to save your family? For many, the answer to this question is an understandable yes. The tearful and panicked faces of parents begging and praying for a missing childâÄôs return on news broadcasts bespeak an underlying desperation that says, âÄúI would do anything to get my child back,âÄù including torture. I imagine that the people charged with protecting American society feel very much the same way. But in circumstances when the stakes are viewed to be incalculably high, why do we stop at waterboarding? According to reports, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times over the course of a single month. We can assume that his interrogators believed that he had information to volunteer and that they were working frantically to get that information, but if they had to waterboard him 183 times, it seems like it would have been wise to change strategies to make him talk. Since thatâÄôs the case, why didnâÄôt they crack out the thumbscrews or fire up the hot poker? Evidently, those methods were considered too grotesque, too vile even by the rather laissiez faire standards set out by the infamous Jay Bybee memo that described torture as âÄúequivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.âÄù Presumably de-nailing doesnâÄôt fall into that category, as it is not a âÄúserious physical injuryâÄù or âÄúorgan failure,âÄù but we decided that was out of bounds, too. When it came to protecting America from terrorists, we were willing to do anything, but not everything. We allowed ourselves to torture, but not to Torture. This is the bizarre system of ethics that has been brought to the American people; weâÄôre willing to torture to save lives, unless we canâÄôt negotiate a little legal and moral wiggle room for the preferred form of torture, in which case itâÄôs wrong. ItâÄôs a policy that could pretty well be summed up as, âÄòWeâÄôll torture however we want whenever we feel like it.âÄô And for what? In a memo authored by Dennis Blair, President Barack ObamaâÄôs National Intelligence Director, the waterboarding program evidently provided âÄúhigh-value information âĦ in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means … the bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.âÄù And now weâÄôre trying to betray and distort our principles to rationalize the policy, bringing in theoretical games like âÄúticking time bombsâÄù and the âÄútorture a terrorist, save your familyâÄù dilemma. But these are not ethics to be proud of; the choice to torture in these scenarios is predicated upon the notion that the ends justify the means, that two wrongs make a right. These are the motives of tyrants, not democrats. These philosophies do not save lives, they take them. It is evil for evilâÄôs sake, and we have all been complicit. ItâÄôs time to decide what we truly believe. Are we a people like our ancestors, sons and daughters of the Enlightenment who upheld the rights of men and built our nation, or are we conniving, morally bankrupt Machiavellians? Chris Benson is the senior editorial board member. He welcomes comments at [email protected]