Four Takes on the Calculus of Torture

Moral, ethical, cultural and national security considerations define debate

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Whether you call it enhanced interrogation or torture, there's no question the CIA did it nor that Eric Holder's special prosecutor will investigate it. But what are the ramifications of, say, telling the mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing that his family is going to be murdered and raped in front of him? What is the cost-benefit analysis behind mock executions and "diapering?" Here, pundits explore the more nuanced arguments for and against such techniques.

Stephen F. Hayes Supports on Grounds of National Security

Let’s review. Abu Zubaydah gave up some information before the use of [enhanced interrogation techniques]. But “since the use of the waterboard…Abu Zubaydah has appeared to be cooperative,” and gave up even more intelligence. Al Nashiri provided mostly historical information in the short time before EITs were employed. “However, following the use of EITs, he provided information about his most current operational planning…” And “accomplished resistor” Khalid Shaykh Muhammad provided mostly useless information before the application of EITs. Afterwards, he “provided information that helped lead to the arrests of terrorists” – so much information, in fact, that he was regarded as the “most prolific” intelligence source.

Reasonable people can – and do – disagree about the morality of using EITs. But only the most accomplished resister could continue to claim that they were not effective.

Julian Sanchez Is Against on Grounds of Morality

I guess what especially turns my stomach here is that the idea wasn’t just to inflict mental anguish on a presumably odious man in order to extract information. It was to inflict that pain by exploiting, as a weakness, whatever flicker of nobility or love remained in an otherwise wretched soul. It was a method of torture that would have been effective only because and to the extent there was something human left in him. Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but every cell in my body is telling me this is sick and wrong.

Jonah Goldberg Supports on Grounds of American Values

I'm doubting that there will be a lot of popular outrage over any of the allegations of abuse. Right or wrong, I think the average American assumes that some rough stuff goes on behind the scenes and that's okay. One reason for that assumption is that Hollywood tells us so every day. I've long been fascinated with the disconnect between what pundits, politicians and various activist groups complain about and the status of interrogation techniques in the popular culture (here's a column I did on the subject in 2005). In countless films and TV shows the good guys — not the bad guys — do things to get important information that makes all some [see update] of the harsh methods and allegedly criminal techniques in the IG report seem like an extra scoop of ice cream and a Swedish massage.

[...] If such practices, in the contexts depicted, were as obviously and clearly evil as many on the left claim, Hollywood could never get away with having the good guys employ them. Harrison Ford in the Tom Clancy movies would never torture wholly innocent and underserving victims for the same reasons he wouldn't beat his kids or hurl racial epithets at black people. But given sufficient time to lay out the context and inform the viewers of the stakes, as well as Ford's motives, the audience not only understands but applauds his actions. Of course it's just a movie. But the movie is tapping into and reflecting the popular moral sentiments. Think of these scenes as elaborate hypothetical situations in the debate about torture and interrogation that are acted out and played before focus groups of normal Americans.

Glenn Greenwald Is Against on Ethical Grounds

The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle -- all things that we have always condemend as "torture" and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies ("torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering . . .") -- reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.
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