Civilized People Do Not Torture
CIVILIZED PEOPLE DO NOT TORTURE
The release of the film Zero Dark Thirty has spawned a resurgence of the debate about torture in the United States. Unfortunately, most commentary sidesteps any consideration of the ethical principles surrounding torture and instead focuses on how effective or not it can be. But any society that claims moral high ground for itself must surely reject atrocities like this, and should at least be faithful to its international obligations to do so. Even in a hypothetical crisis scenario from the world of fiction, torturing people is not the behavior of civilized people.
It is rare to find any principled criticism of torture in current debates; most of the discourse is consumed with whether or not torture is effective in conducting interrogations. Most experts agree that it is generally ineffective in procuring accurate statements, but this is entirely beside the point. Torture is immoral, illegal, and barbaric, and it shouldn’t matter whether or not we think it can help us get information. Imagine if someone could show some great social or security benefit from committing genocide—would anyone consider listening to this argument? The same should be true of torture, which the word “immoral” seems insufficient to describe. Civilized people do not practice such atrocities, and it is not how civilized societies should do business. Torturing human beings is the behavior of barbarians, and unless we wish to debase ourselves as such, we should concern ourselves more with the morality of our actions rather than their efficacy.
These principles apply especially to an American society that prides itself on ‘exceptionalism’ and insists on considering itself to be the central force for good in the world. If these propositions are true, it is not because of any law of nature; it must be reflected in our society’s actions. If we want to think of ourselves as the good guys, we have to act like good guys, and good guys definitely don’t torture people. After all, this is a practice we readily (and rightly) denounce others for practicing, especially when the victims are Americans. Whether in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or a host of other places, we never ask the question “was it an effective interrogation method for them to torture Americans, or was it counterproductive?” We rightly ignore such considerations and call the atrocities war crimes. If we are willing to condemn other torturers on grounds of principle, we must be consistent and honest with ourselves when we examine our own behavior. Anything less reduces our system of ethics to a mere sham, a simple fiction that we construct just to make ourselves feel good.
The United States also has firm international obligations to prevent and prosecute torture worldwide, to say nothing of its duty not to practice it. As a party to the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and the Nuremburg Principles as incorporated into the U.N. Charter, the U.S. has committed itself wholesale to opposing torture. As outlined in the Constitution, these ratified treaties are the Supreme Law of the Land in the United States. Additionally, the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 even prescribes the death penalty for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (torture included). Even if someone’s perverted system of morality deems torture to be permissible, it is plainly illegal in the United States and in virtually any country on the planet. Any minimal commitment to the rule of law requires us to renounce torture.
Most debates on torture usually break down into an insistence that a ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario requires torture to save lives. Such a situation, however, is mainly from the world of television and movies, and shouldn’t concern serious people discussing serious problems. We might just as well craft Pentagon policy around the contingency of an extraterrestrial invasion. When asked about torture during the 2008 Republican presidential primary, candidates thought they were being tough by declaring that when trouble strikes, they’d like to call Jack Bauer. They may as well have been intending to call Batman, who is no less real than Mr. Bauer! Attempting to imitate fictional characters is a ridiculous way to defend a barbaric practice. Even if such an imaginary ‘ticking time bomb’ situation were to actually happen, it is still just plain wrong to torture people. Just like other crimes that are categorically evil, such as rape and child abuse, torture is always wrong in any circumstance.