Cheney and Torture (or how the ex-VP fails Ethics 101)
The New York Times reports the following comments by Cheney in reaction to Obama’s release of the Bush administration memos defending acts of torture:
As the debate escalated, Mr. Cheney weighed in, saying that if the country is to judge the methods used in the interrogations, it should have information about what was obtained from the tough tactics.
“I find it a little bit disturbing” that “they didn’t put out the memos that showed the success of the effort,” Mr. Cheney said on Fox News. “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity.” ”Pressure Grows to Investigate Interrogations,” April 20, 2009,
Leaving aside the fact that experts in the field have consistently challenged the utility of torture, leaving aside the fact that we could have gotten more information through alternative methods of interrogation, and leaving aside the fact that by torturing prisoners we increase the chances that our own soldiers will be tortured, what Cheney’s comments reveal is the poverty of the ethical imagination of the Bush administration.
Yes, there are good arguments to be made for taking into consideration consequences in judging whether acts are ethical. There is a whole philosophical tradition built around this notion, Utilitarianism. However, the idea that we can justify torture based on “the success” of the method, which presumably means the successful gathering of intelligence, is precisely what every declaration of human rights, including the Geneva Convention, repudiates. (As does every form of sophisticated Utilitarianism.)
Imagine if I said, let’s rape prisoners in order to get the information that we need. No decent human being would tolerate this as a legitimate means of gathering information. Rape is a basic violation of the dignity and integrity of another human being. It’s horrific to think that governments might write legal briefs defending rape on the grounds that it produced information that they needed. Yet, how different is torture from rape? It too is a basic violation of the dignity and integrity of another human being. If one thinks about what the act of torture does to another human being (and what it does to the torturer), it can be viewed as a form of rape, just as rape can be understood as a form of torture. Nevertheless, the Bush administration’s lawyers wrote legal opinions defending acts that time and again have been labeled torture.
So, here is my suggestion in response to Cheney. When he says, “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity,” replace the last part of the sentence, “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of raping human beings.” Now, tell me whether anyone who is even moderately ethical, or anyone who wants to defend the ideals for which this country stands, would be willing to utter such a sentence? But this is in fact a sentence that follows from Cheney’s crude consequentialism.
Cheney is a clever but hopelessly thoughtless man, who was part of a thoughtless administration. He still doesn’t understand how much damage he did to this country in his efforts to protect us. (And let’s not forget, his methods aren’t even good ones in terms of protecting the country.)
UPDATE, April 22: Former FBI supervisory agent discusses recent claims about the effectiveness of torture.
“My Tortured Decision” (excerpt)
By ALI SOUFAN, April 22, 2009, The New York Times
FOR seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified. But the release last week of four Justice Department memos on interrogations allows me to shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned.
One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.
It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence….