Does torture work?
It is a Bush-era debate that has found Obama-era relevance because of a new movie, “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which torture seems to work quite well.
The film, an Oscar nominee for best picture, is being sold as a fact-based accounting of the 10-year manhunt that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. In it, torture – the waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, hitting and humiliation the U.S. government once antiseptically dubbed “enhanced interrogation” – is depicted as integral to the information gathering that allowed the CIA to find him.
That depiction has alarmed some observers. Acting CIA Director Michael Morell recently issued a statement to agency employees in which he says the film gives the impression these brutal methods “were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false.”
Actors Martin Sheen and Ed Asner are so upset at that impression that they have reportedly asked members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences not to support the film in Academy Awards voting.
But torture still has its defenders. Bush-era Attorney General Michael Mukasey penned a commentary in the Wall Street Journal in 2011 defending the harsh techniques because, he said, they produced results. In a recent column, George F. Will went so far as to quote Jack Nicholson’s famous “You can’t handle the truth!” speech from “A Few Good Men” about the moral choices the nation’s defenders are required to make. Will, who dubbed torture “hard but morally defensible,” failed to mention that Nicholson’s character ends up arrested and disgraced.
Does torture work?
Beg pardon, but we have been asking the wrong question. What matters is not whether torture works. What matters is whether torture is right.
Consider: The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports that drunken drivers kill almost 10,000 people a year. That’s three Sept. 11 attacks and then some. But if you wanted to stop that carnage, it would be simple. Just make drunken driving a capital crime with instant punishment. The evidence – blood alcohol levels – allows for scientific certainty of guilt, so there’d be no need of a long trial. We could execute the miscreants within a day.
Drunken driving would disappear. The new policy would solve the problem. It would work.
And if that were truly the ultimate rubric by which we decided a question, there could be no argument against it. But we won’t make drunken driving a capital crime for one simple reason.
It would be wrong. In fact, it would be repellent to our values, inconsonant with the kind of people we consider ourselves to be.
That is the same reason torture unsettles the American conscience, and why addressing that unease by debating its efficacy misses the point. We are a nation where human rights are enshrined in law, a nation that proudly, routinely lectures other nations on the need to close their gulags, free their dissidents, treat human beings as human beings.
We cannot be that nation and yet also be this other nation that tortures and then defends torture because it works. Indeed, if that were the only important metric, what other things might we do, condone or defend?
But it isn’t the only important metric.
In America, even drunken drivers, even child rapists and murderers, have rights. Though those rights are sometimes inconvenient, even incompatible with justice, we honor them anyway because we realize the nation’s moral authority derives precisely from the willingness of the state to curb its own power – even when it has reason to do otherwise, even when doing otherwise might “work.”
This is an obeisance that power makes to human freedom. On the day it no longer does, it is not just terrorists who will be in trouble.
Power that is not constrained by humanity is not constrained by anything at all.