There is no good moral argument for torture. There is no good political argument for torture. There are not even good "national security" or information-gathering arguments for torture. This is not to say, however, that such arguments haven't been attempted. So why does torture persist? It persists because in each of these cases - moral, political, practical - justifications for the practice can be found only if we step outside of our liberal democratic skins into different sets of assumptions, moral and political principles, values, and attitudes regarding human rights, the liberal principles of dignity and autonomy, the nature of political systems, and what we are willing to give up in the name of the ambiguous notion of "security."
If we stand outside of the liberal democratic state, our humanistic selves, and a basic sense of decency, we might appreciate how torture works quite well as an instrument of oppression or punishment, how it tears the social fabric and instils fear in a population, and how it can be used alongside other forms of violence to achieve various political and economic goals (such as ethnic cleansing or displacing people from desirable lands). But note that, in order to find such methods and goals justifiable, we have to take on an entirely different perspective about who we are. We have to, for instance, transform ourselves into beings who believe that anything goes in the name of "national security." This is part of the reason why torture is a radical institution (and it always becomes an institution), especially when used by liberal democratic governments. Apart from the damage torture does to individual victims and torturers, it is - in the American case - an assault on the very foundational principles of liberal democratic society and a moral transformation of ourselves. This slippery slope is not a logical abstraction or a misused hypothetical. It is quite real.
In the American case, the instrumentality of torture - stated as information-gathering - remains perplexing. Although it's too lengthy a discussion to go into here, torture does a really poor job as an information-gathering tool. Or at least it does a poor job if we are not prepared to torture many many people, including many innocents, to seek the supposedly valuable information. Furthermore, many professional interrogators insist that they have much better means of gaining information than through torture and other physical and psychological violence. Has torture been used by the US as an instrument of oppression? In the post-Bush US, we now need to unravel the complexities of accountability and complicity, a possible truth commission and/or prosecutions, and the ugly reality of political feasibility. But I think that a critical question remains: why has the US tortured?
If you would like to read more regarding the American case in particular, here are some recommendations.
1. The initial debates: Two collections of essays in particular sum up the basic arguments of the early days after the Abu Ghraib photographs went public: Sanford Levinson, ed. Torture: A Collection and Karen Greenberg, ed. The Torture Papers.
2. Understanding torture: Darius Rejali has written the masterwork on torture. If you're interested in the subject, you absolutely must have Rejali's 700-page Torture and Democracy. I also recommend (how could I not?) my own edited volume, On Torture. It's a different work than Levinson's and Greenberg's in that On Torture seeks to move beyond the polarized framework of ticking bomb utilitarians on one side and human rights absolutists on the other. Both are highly problematic views. It also collects writers from other countries, takes a more humanistic view of torture, and cracks open the problems with the basic framework in the US for discussing torture. Also check out a recent interview with me at Subtopia.
3. Documentation: There are two very good collections of documentation regarding US torture, including legal memos, CIA torture documents, independent reports, and so on: Mark Danner's Torture and Truth, and Jaffer and Singh's ACLU-produced Administration of Torture.
4. Bush administration torture: These are well-known books which are well worth a read: Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, and Philippe Sands' Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values.
5. What to do next: Prosecutions? A truth commission? Nothing at all because it's too politically difficult and we ought to "look forward rather than backwards"? Big questions remain regarding what to do about Bush administration torture. I have some forthcoming work on this. But, as things develop, I highly recommend following the work of newly-appointed Office of Legal Counsel Assistant Attorney General Marty Lederman, formerly of Balkinization; Scott Horton at Harper's; and one of my favorite legal philosophers, David Luban at Georgetown Law.
--- Thomas C. Hilde
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