When my students use their cellphones to text during class, they always do so furtively, hands beneath a desk or hidden (they think) behind a strategically positioned purse or backpack. Thus they affirm this very human principle: When we’re doing something we know we’re not supposed to be doing, we usually try to hide it.
Accordingly, despite an 11-3 vote this month by the Senate Intelligence Committee to declassify the results of its four-year investigation into the use of “harsh interrogation techniques,” that is, torture, after 9/11, resistance from CIA officials and some Republicans is predictable.
According to McClatchy and other media organizations, the committee’s review of millions of CIA documents revealed little evidence that torture produced much useful information, and it appears that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were more “enhanced” than we’ve been led to believe.
Committee chair Dianne Feinstein argues for full disclosure: “The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen.”
It’s not that torture is a slippery slope; it’s that all human progress is, from savagery to enlightenment. The journey away from human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, genital mutilation, genocide, slavery, child labor, discrimination, intolerance, and repression of women has been slow, difficult, and halting. Sometimes progress stops altogether, and very, very often civilization regresses.
We don’t serve the aspirations of this progress with Orwellian euphemism to justify practices that enlightened civilizations have struggled to leave behind.
Some apologists for enhanced interrogation have compared it to high-spirited college hazing, but they’re wrong in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to begin. Waterboarding, for example, is meant to instill terror and pain, which is a fine definition of torture.
In fact, in his short history of the Spanish-American War of 1898, writer James Bradley quotes First Lt. Grover Flint, who described the regular waterboarding of Filipinos to a Senate panel: “A man suffers tremendously; there is no doubt about that.” Others have called waterboarding “agony.”
So, despite denials by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and former President George W. Bush (“America does not torture”), America has, indeed, tortured. America should commit to never torturing again.
Or should it? No discussion of torture ever gets very far before it encounters the “ticking time bomb” scenario. A terrorist has planted a nuclear device in the heart of New York City, and unless he discloses its location, thousands will die. He refuses to talk. The clock is ticking. Is torture justified to save thousands?
Sam Harris, prominent atheist and writer, has trouble thinking of a reason why we shouldn’t. He points out the philosophical paradox that we face when we reject torture while accepting (or ignoring) the brutal collateral damage that occurs during the course of ordinary war.
If we are willing to incinerate innocent men, women, and children with firebombing and nuclear weapons in the pursuit of some higher goal, why should we hesitate, he asks, to inflict the same level of suffering on a terrorist in order to save innocent lives?
I don’t have a good answer for that. Nor do I know if using torture in that situation turns us into torturers any more than an act of cannibalism by a castaway on a desert island turns him into a cannibal.
But the “ticking time bomb scenario” is extremely hypothetical, only loosely related to the post-911 torture committed by the Bush administration, which was a dangerous repudiation of human progress that surrendered a great deal of moral high ground.
Perhaps the only thing more morally dangerous than torture is covering it up. The full disclosure of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation will help us decide what kind of country we want to be, one that tortures or one that does not. Unless we have to.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.