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It doesn’t matter if torture worked. It’s still wrong.


The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a report on the CIA's torture practices, revealing that the CIA subjected detainees to horrifying abuses, including waterboarding multiple people so severely that they nearly drowned, forcing a detainee to stand on a broken foot, and forcing hummus and pureed food into a detainee's rectum.

We know what arguments defenders of "enhanced interrogation techniques" will martial in response to the newly-released report: they will claim that the techniques used weren't really torture, and that they were instrumental in acquiring valuable intelligence information that was used to prevent future terrorist attacks, capture dangerous people, and keep Americans safe.

It doesn't matter if those defenses are correct (and they almost certainly are not). It is not actually acceptable to break a person using techniques that are merely "harsh." It is the breaking that should concern us, not how it is achieved or the outcome. That is torture. Torture is wrong.

It should go without saying, but a society in which the government subjects people to unbearable pain or intolerable threats in order to break their will and control their behavior is not a free society. Freedom requires that there be a point at which an individual can decide to oppose the state's wishes. There may be consequences to that decision, but the ability to make it matters.

Torture destroys that choice. No number of euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" can hide the truth that the point of harsh interrogations is to leave their subjects with no option but to betray themselves in order to satisfy their torturers. (Or to lie, if the betrayal isn't enough to achieve that satisfaction.) Torture makes the body an accomplice in its mission to overthrow the mind.

And when that mission has been accomplished, when the choice to resist has been taken away, the tortured person loses his free will and becomes an instrument of his torturer. His decision-making narrows to only one consideration: what do I have to do to make this stop?

That should be reason, on its own, to rule out the use of torture or "enhanced interrogation techniques," but those methods are a cancer on the rule of law in other ways as well.

When torture is an option, it becomes an obligation

Once torture is an option, law enforcement officials and intelligence agents have to justify the decision not to use it, and they can never claim to have exhausted all the available options until they have done so. Likewise, once we accept that breaking a detainee is a legitimate goal, officials have to justify their decision to not use ever-harsher techniques against a detainee who has not broken yet. And worst of all, once torture is what you do after you've tried everything else, the temptation to skip over the "everything else" and move straight to torture becomes very strong.

The torture report is evidence that those are real problems, not theoretical ones. CIA personnel objected to the "non-stop" enhanced interrogation techniques they were asked to use on Abu Zubaydah, and questioned their legality, but senior officials at CIA headquarters ordered them to continue using the techniques. And at least one detainee, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, was subjected to torture before he was even asked to cooperate. That is not torture being used as a last resort, it is torture being used as a matter of course.

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