By Dennis Loo
There are several dimensions to this question – the practical, the legal, and the moral.
The practical dimension: people who defend the use of torture generally do so on the basis of the “ticking time bomb” scenario. The argument goes that torture or, its euphemism, “enhanced interrogation methods,” must be done because many lives will be saved.
The problem here is that a ticking time bomb scenario does not exist outside the confines of fiction and cynical political manipulation.
If a suspect is captured and interrogated because the government suspects them of being involved in an imminent terrorist plot, said suspect’s co-conspirators would find out almost immediately of their capture. Someone knowledgeable about a pending attack would undoubtedly have to stay in touch frequently with his or her fellow plotters. As soon as they fail to communicate with their contacts on schedule, their co-conspirators would have to assume that one of theirs has been detained and interrogated. They would then have to assume that their plans are going to come out and would immediately cancel the attack and disperse themselves to the winds.
The legal dimension: torture has been and is against international and national law because if there were exceptions allowed, then any two-bit tyrant could claim that they had a ticking time bomb scenario in process and that they had to torture the detainee(s) to “save lives.” The exception would then become the rule: there would be no way to stop torture from becoming a common practice worldwide. Those countries that do engage in torture are, furthermore, rightly considered pariahs and their policies of torture gravely endanger their own soldiers captured by their adversaries.
The moral dimension: those who engage in torture are carrying out monstrous acts. They are brutalizing the people they torture, debasing themselves, and debasing the people on whose behalf they are allegedly acting. Even if there were a ticking time bomb, and even if it were possible to know with certainty that the person in custody was a person with knowledge about a ticking time bomb, and even if by torturing those persons we saved thousands of lives, it would still be morally wrong to torture anyone. (We’re talking here, by the way, about hundreds and hundreds tortured and scores of them murdered via torture during the Bush years).
The logic of those who justify torture because it “saves American lives” has led and will lead to justifying any number of heinous acts and can only be accepted on the immoral grounds that American lives are more precious than those of any other country’s peoples. By that logic, what the Nazis did to “enemies of the state” in the name of protecting the German people was perfectly reasonable, legal, and moral.
Are we no better than they?
Torture is not an intelligence-gathering device. Interrogation experts and those who have survived the ordeal of torture agree: the torture victim will tell the torturer whatever they think the torturer wants to hear. Those who carry out torture know this.
Torture is terror applied to an individual with the goal of intimidating and terrorizing whole populations. Torture is terrorism.
Dennis Loo, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at Cal Poly Pomona and co-editor of Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney. He is a Steering Committee Member of World Can’t Wait. He blogs at http://open.salon.com/blog/dennis_loo.