In a series of earlier posts, I delved into the pragmatic debate over whether interrogation techniques such as waterboarding were effective at extracting actionable intelligence from terrorists who otherwise would not be willing to talk. But, clearly, for many people, this is not the determining issue in the debate.
Citing a video in which Shep Smith used colorful language to describe his stance that America should not use torture under any circumstances, Andrew Sullivan, added, “for Americans to be discussing if torture worked – if it worked – is staggering.” Now, a lot of people whose moral judgment I respect have more or less expressed this view to me, so I have no desire to belittle it.
But for me personally, I believe it is morally justifiable to waterboard a terrorist such as KSM if doing so is necessary to save the lives of thousands of innocent Americans. When I think of all of the lives that were shattered on 9/11, all of the fathers and sons and brothers and sisters who perished because of a deranged ideology that celebrates death, there’s no way in good conscience I could say that it’s worth suffering a repeat of that attack in order to protect a terrorist from waterboarding, sleep deprivation, or some of the other techniques that were employed. Now, some people may respond that such a scenario never plays out in real life and that we didn’t gain useful intelligence that we didn’t already learn through other means. As I’ve noted previously, I’m open to persuasion on that point. But that brings us back to the debate over whether or not using such techniques worked, and moves us away from the narrower moral question as to whether it would be justifiable to use those techniques if they were effective.
One way in which Sullivan, and other absolutists, try to convey the immorality of waterboarding is to note that it was a technique used by the Chinese communists and the Khemer Rouge. However, even if we concede that waterboarding is torture, it’s important to note that not all forms of torture are created equal, and we have to take into account the reasons why such techniques were employed. After all, the Nazis, like Americans, used guns, but they were used in different ways to achieve different ends.
The website of Cambodia’s Killing Fields Memorial Museum describes Toul Sleng prison (aka S-21):
The families of offenders were often brought to the prison as well in order to keep the deaths of their loved one from being avenged. Almost all of the prisoners had worked in the armed forces, factories, or administration. Upon arrival at S-21, the prisoners were photographed, tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes their captors charged them with, and then executed in Choeung Ek or the Killing Fields.
A recent AFP story on a the confession of the regime’s prison chief explained:
Only a handful of people are known to have survived their time at Tuol Sleng prison, which is now a genocide museum lined with photographs of some of the more than 15,000 men, women and children who died there….
“From the day it claimed its first victim, the policy was that no one could leave S21 alive,” [prosecutor Robert] Petit told the court.
Waterboarding may have been one technique used against the prisoners in Cambodia, but it was far from the harshest technique:
“Victims were beaten with rattan sticks and whips, electrocuted, had toenails and finger nails pulled out, were suffocated with plastic bags forcibly tied over their heads and were stripped naked and had their genitals electrocuted,” Petit said.
While Sullivan likens the Bush administration to other authoritarian regimes based on very narrow factors, it’s important to draw a distinction. Bush wasn’t routinely rounding up political opponents like members of MoveOn.org, Code Pink or, say, Sullivan, beating them until they confessed to being traitors, and then executing them. The idea was to employ techniques such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation to prevent future attacks against innocent civilians, and Bush made his decisions in the wake of the worst attack on U.S. soil in the nation’s history. If somebody wants to argue that the interrogation program was an utter failure and that it damaged our reputation while producing little value, that’s one thing. But calling it “staggering” to think that Americans would be open to the idea of waterboarding terrorists to prevent attacks on innocent civilians is another.