We ought to put to rest the debate about whether “enhanced interrogation,” the euphemism for torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment promoted by Dick Cheney and some other officials of the Bush administration, contributed to the death of Osama bin Laden more than two years after the end of that administration and several years after it reportedly abandoned such practices. Almost certainly, the main arguments put forward by both sides in this debate are valid some of the time and not valid at other times. Ultimately, however, this is a debate that leads nowhere.
Proponents of torture claim that it enables interrogators to obtain information they could not otherwise obtain, helping in such instances as locating a fugitive such as bin Laden or foiling another terrorist attack. However much one loathes the idea of torture, it is impossible to say that it never yields such a result.
Yet opponents of torture point out that it also elicits unreliable information that misleads interrogators and that may delay or impede their investigations. Again, this probably happens in some cases. More important, opponents argue that a reputation for engaging in torture discredits the governments that use such practices and, thereby, serves the purposes of their enemies. It may help terrorist organizations to enlist recruits. Here, too, it is impossible to refute such arguments. This happens in at least some cases, perhaps all the time.
As it is evident that torture sometimes provides advantages in an investigation and sometimes, possibly all the time, also has disadvantages, is there a way to determine whether the arguments on one side outweigh those on the other side? Probably not. By its nature, torture is a secretive practice. Its practitioners do not subject their activities to public scrutiny. There is no way to conduct a scientific study. One can take note of the self-serving claims of practitioners, but one cannot reliably measure their supposed achievements. Assessing how significant the practice is in arousing antagonism against governments that employ torture is also beyond measure.
And if there is no way to settle the argument about whether torture confers practical advantages that outweigh its disadvantages, it is fruitless to pursue it. The only way to resolve the debate is on the basis of principle. Do we want our government to engage in torture? Those who believe the United States should practice torture should not attempt to refute the claims of those who point out its costs. Similarly, those who argue that the United States should never engage in torture should not attempt to refute all assertions that it can confer advantages. Both sides in that debate may have points, but they should acknowledge that the other side probably also has its points.
I am against torture as a matter of principle. Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are prohibited by customary international law; by a host of international treaties, including some to which the United States is a party; and by the Eighth Amendment. I am against practices that are clearly condemned by U.S. law and by international laws that the United States has committed to respecting.
It seems noteworthy that many of those who disagree are unwilling to state flatly that, as a matter of principle, they favor torture. Instead, they hide behind the euphemism of enhanced interrogation. Yet the advantages they claim are possible only if the enhancement on which they rely is sufficient to make those detainees who are members of a terrorist network disclose information they would otherwise withhold. The methods they use have to cause enough pain or distress in individuals who have probably been trained to resist to overcome such resistance. If enhanced interrogation is to produce the advantages that its proponents claim, it is only because what is done to detainees is enhanced to the point where it constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or torture.
So the real debate is not between those who claim that enhanced interrogation works and those who say it is counterproductive. Nor is it between those who oppose torture on principle and those who espouse the use of the moderately discomforting methods that a term such as “enhanced interrogation” is intended to evoke. It is a debate between advocates of cruelty or torture that suffices to overcome resistance, regardless of its costs, and opponents of cruelty or torture, regardless of its advantages.
Which side are you on?
The writer, a former executive director of Human Rights Watch, is president of Open Society Foundations.