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….

6 thoughts

  1. The world is an imperfect place full of people that want to kill you or me for any number of reasons. I don’t care, that in a time of war, we ‘pretended to drown’ a bunch of terrorists with the goal of gaining vital information that could prevent another attack against our country. And, ironically, its better that they tortured ‘them’, because imagine if another major attack had occurred in the United States…imagine what power and leeway the government would have had to take away some of our most basic rights in the name of protecting the nation. Instead we did what every other country in the world does when they need information from someone that doesn’t want to talk…they torture them until they talk. The only difference in our country is the number of weak stomachs and the unprecedented access granted to the media. In other countries you just never even know Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib even exists.
    And by the way…the only time the information is ‘bad’ is when they run out of ‘good’ intel to give up.
    Is it pleasant…no. Is it ethical…depends on your point of view. To me…it is unethical for an American Government to NOT do everything in their power to protect it’s citizens…and illegal aliens.

  2. scottaderhold,

    I appreciate your sending comments in, but I think that you are wrong on this one for a number of reasons. First, on a practical level there is no solid evidence that torture works. In particular, there is evidence from experts that other methods are far better at extracting information. Second, out military has opposed torture. It presents a danger to our own troops. Why? This brings me to the third point. Countries have honored certain codes because their own self-interest depended on it. The Geneva conventions have had a positive impact on how captured soldiers are treated. Our military is well aware of this and has not been comfortable with the torture policies.

    I also believe that you too easily dismiss the dangers of having our government engage in torture. Yes, different governments have sanctioned torture, but there has been good cooperation around this issue among many states. We do not want to be one of the nations that lowers the standards. It’s not in our long term interest. It reduces the safety of everyone over time. In addition, you seem to assume that those we capture have vital information. We have made a lot of errors regarding the individuals whom we have captured. We end up torturing innocent people.

    I think that you dismiss torture much too lightly when you say, “pretended to drown.” That is not the experience of the people being tortured. You are worried about having your basic rights taken away. Well, I will bet you that a government that gets used to violating the rights of non-Americans will find it easier to violate our rights. And you can already see this in the violations of the right to privacy in terms of the unbelievable amount of wiretapping that was going on.

    One of the great threats to liberty is a government that persuades its citizens that it is under constant threat. Whatever threat we are under has to be put into perspective or we will lose our freedom and dignity.

    Lastly, a nation needs to have an ethical compass. Torture, like rape, is morally wrong. We have to ask ourselves what kind of people we want to be.

    P.S. One more point, you say that it would be unethical for America not to do everything to protect its citizens. Would this include dropping a nuclear weapon on a foreign city that housed a couple of hundred dangerous terrorists, killing a million people in the process? Of course not. There are limits. There is justifiable self-defense, but not at any price.

  3. I suspected my dog of doing a very bad thing. Knowing that he is deathly afraid of insects I locked him in a box with a large insect. He howled. Next I tied him down, put a towel on his face and poured cold water on him. He thought he was drowning and struggled like mad. And for good measure I slammed him into the wall several times. He cried.

    No, I didn’t really do these things to my dog but if I had I’d be arrested for cruelty to animals. So, if we are not allowed to do this to a dog how can we do it a human?

  4. Putting aside law and morality and decency (and we did) for the moment, let’s consider another aspect of torture, its efficacy – is torture the most effective way to obtain intelligence? Considering the question in its broader context, the answer is a resounding, “NO.”

    When we resorted to covert brutality and then were revealed in photographs taken by our own soldiers as the worst kind of thugs and hypocrites, we not only stained forever the moral fabric of our great nation, we hardened Islamic extremists against us and irreparably degraded the probability that more moderate Muslims might cooperate with us.

    Ironically, intelligence experts tell us that what they call “less-kinetic interrogation and indoctrination techniques” (Malcolm W. Nance, November 9, 2007) work as well or better, and aren’t as likely to “backfire” (Ali Soufan, April 22, 2009).

  5. Dave your naivete is frightening. Fiddling while Rome burns. First I won’t even recognize your animal cruelty example.

    The reason we do it to ‘terrorists’ is because they have information that will save your life and my life. And guess what…it worked. I find it very curious that Mr. Obama will not release the memos that contain the information gained from the interrogation. He has released everything except for that…interesting.

    Second of all…is waterboarding torture? We put our very own troops through the same technique as part of their training in the unfortunate event that they are captured…because we know that other countries will do it to them. Are we torturing our own troops…and if we are…where is the outcry for them instead of crying out for known terrorists responsible for the murder of thousands of American innocents and plotting the murder of thousands more. Something is backward about that. And how come no solder has sued the government for torturing them?

    Dave…I hate to tell you this, but there are people around the world who want to kill you simply because of where you live. They cannot be bargained with because they are willing to blow themselves up at the drop of a hat just to hopefully injure you. What other methods do you suggest we use to get life saving information. The administration keeps mentioning that we could’ve gotten the intel through other methods…but never mentions what those might be.

    1. scottarderhold,
      you take the view of the means justifies the ends. I do not. We fight wars under rules. We pay might pay a price for our principles.

      How ’bout you and I meet at a neutral location and have a competent person administer water boarding by CIA proceedures to us? Then we can both comment from a point of first hand experience.

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