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July 26, 2016
The Republican candidate for the presidency has recommended torturing suspected terrorists. While former Vice President Dick Cheney was known to advocate the use of torture in some circumstances, many thought torture had been abandoned by President Obama. The president chose not to condemn those who in the past may have used torture, a policy justified as looking forward not backwards, but the failure to do so has been criticized for (Z Roth) making it easy to reinstitute torture. The administration has also been accused, with no denial, of sending suspects for interrogation to Afghanistan, which is known to use torture. So … the question remains — should the U.S. government torture terrorist suspects, or collude in having other countries do so for us?
If it was certain that torture provides unreliable information, that would settle the matter, but it is not certain. There are persuasive advocates on both sides of the issue who cite examples of the benefits or the losses incurred by the use of torture, and no objective way to settle the matter. Even if we were to grant that torture sometimes does provide useful information and that it is possible to know when the information provided is accurate, the question would still remain about whether the United States or its allies should use torture.
Torture violates the eighth amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. There has been argument about whether non-citizens are entitled to the protections afforded by the constitution. There is no agreement about whether this amendment prohibits what we do to anyone or only what we do to our fellow citizens.
Have so-called “harsh” interrogation methods protected us from attacks on the homeland since 9/11? Or do we owe our safety to more traditional human intelligence, non-coercive interrogations, and cyber intelligence?
Not even brutal totalitarian societies (e.g., the Nazis and the Soviets), which had no qualms about using torture, were able to completely prevent violent attacks against leaders or civilians. Nor could England stop all IRA attacks even when it used methods later considered reprehensible by a Royal Commission and found illegal by the European Court. The Israelis reportedly used torture (despite it being illegal in Israel) but did not succeed in preventing all violent attacks on non-combatants.
The reality is that all societies are vulnerable to some, hopefully few, attacks on their civilian populations. No matter how harsh the method used to interrogate suspects, such attacks cannot be completely prevented. If neither science nor passionate advocates can settle the matter about whether we should use torture to uncover threats, where should we look for guidance about what we should do? Surely it must be, as President Obama has recently said, to the principles for which we stand: humane treatment even to those suspected or known to be intent on killing non-combatants. We must also remember and take heart from one more lesson from history: societies do survive attacks on their civilian population. Yes, we are vulnerable, but we won’t be destroyed unless, out of desperation, we abandon the moral foundation on which this country has been built.