Torture: Do Ends Justify Means?

With the disclosure of confidential memoranda discussing the permissible limits of aggressive interrogation of terrorist suspects, the Obama administration has thrust the issue of torture back into the public domain.

In response, former Vice President Dick Cheney proposed that subsequent government documents be released which, he claims, will reveal the fruits or benefits of these techniques which he deems to have been successful as a matter of homeland security.

As I understand Mr. Cheney, he seems to be arguing that even if the subject practices were something like torture, and they prevented a serious terrorist attack on the United States, this would be justification for having used them. While I have no particular objection to releasing this additional material, I do not find this line of moral reasoning compelling at all.

The former Vice President is arguing, essentially, that the ends justify the means.

 

Others have taken up this argument with gusto from the opposite perspective. This past week National Public Radio ran a story on interrogation techniques that worked and those that did not. It compared Army interrogation techniques to the CIA’s harsher approach and found the former to be more effective. I have no idea who has the better of this argument as a factual matter. But, again, this line of reasoning begs the fundamental moral question as to the licit or illicit nature of “enhanced interrogation”. I certainly hope that the morally benign approach is more effective, but it really is irrelevant to the question of the moral status of torture per se.

I have long resisted the idea that American officials would san ction torture for any reason. As a youngster I perceived that it was always the Gestapo or the KGB who did such things. I also recall the debate in France over torture during the Algerian War which tore that country apart and, at least to some degree, contributed to its withdrawal from Algeria.

That “the ends never justify the means” is one of those foundational principles drilled into any person who has had a morally serious education, evidently an increasingly rare thing in the United States these days. Certainly circumstances can lead to a sympathetic or indulgent attitude to any given situation or person utilizing intrinsically evil practices; but that is a long way from justification, approval or the setting of basic government policy.

The toughest case for me was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My father was stationed in Europe, waiting to ship out to the Pacific when those bombings occurred. Many defend these actions to this day on the grounds that the avoidance of blood lost in trying to invade Japan was well worth the cost.

Again, while sympathizing with the agony of the decision facing President Truman, I never could reconcile myself to the mass destruction of civilian, noncombatant populations, no matter how militarized Japanese society may have been at the time. I simply could not reconcile such actions with any version of the Just War Theory dating back to St. Augustine. It was simply beyond the Pale.

Reviewing the list of interrogation tactics and governing practices sanctioned by the US Justice Department back in 2002, waterboarding is the practice which clearly qualifies as torture for me and most people.

For several years now I had harbored an abhorrence of waterboarding, having heard from Viet Nam veterans of its use during that war. More recently, Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece in Vanity Fair in which he tells of his submission to the practice to gain an existential insight into the practice. Hitchens is adamant in maintaining that waterboarding does not simulate drowning. It is drowning. I think he has that right.

Considering slapping, “walling”, sleep deprivation and other tactics, tough practices all, I could not say for sure, that such techniques amounted to torture in an objective sense of the term — until I read how these techniques, as well as waterboarding, were used multiple times over a prolonged period of time. The practices relied on the fear and uncertainty of the subject on the receiving end of an extended barrage of such practices. They fell short, say, of branding or electrocution or other horrendous things that human beings have done to each other. Still, I would be extremely upset if an American soldier was subjected to similar treatment at the hands of the enemy. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Waterboarding seemed to me to comport with what most human beings perceive or understand to be “torture”. Reasonable people will disagree on many of the other techniques, depending on their severity and intensity of application; but waterboarding is the real thing.

Without getting into the legal complexity of how we as a country define torture, most citizens presume it to be not a mere municipal matter but one of moral substance.

Which brings us back to ends and means. Saving a city from a large-scale terrorist attack is a good thing. However, does it justify serious, inherently immoral or intrinsically evil means to achieve that end? Cheney and others who support him on this issue seem to think so without saying so. They fail to make explicit their view that the ends justify the means given their focus on showing the benefit, or lack of benefit, of “enhanced interrogation” in terms of successfully avoiding an attack.

I, for one, would have preferred hearing the former Vice President engage the question of what is, or is not, “torture” rather than whether or not it serves a utilitarian function. Assuming that the ends can redeem an immoral means is dangerous, a slippery moral slope which can cause otherwise sane people to justify the most horrendous practices. Why stop with torturing the subject at hand? What if you could lay hands on a terrorist’s wife and children? Would it be all right to subject them to abuse, mistreatment, torture or even death to bring pressure to bear on a recalcitrant suspect? Where, as they say, does it all end?

There is hardly an inhumane or immoral act which cannot be justified for some supposedly greater good: carpet bombing of cities, euthanasia, abortion, abridgement of civil liberties, lying under oath. In this sense torture is no different. You may argue about what is or is not torture, but you cannot justify the thing itself without abandoning the fundamental principles of a just and moral social order.

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