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Torture: Ineffective, Illegal, and Unprincipled

<a href=The issue of torture and security keeps reemerging in the news, as we debate matters of national survival and our core values. The issue is often posed in the following way: What if a terrorist had information about an urgent threat to American lives and the only way to obtain that information would be to torture it out of him? The responses range from: No, even if we were under grave threat, torture would violate our principles and we should never do it; to, torture doesn’t work or produces unreliable information, so, we violate our principles and get nothing for it.

My own view is that principles and values are important. We should not torture because it is wrong and it violates the spirit of U.S. and International law.  We know that in the real world, people violate principles all of the time. Does that mean we should have no principles? Does that mean we should develop less stringent ones? One of our most deeply held ethical principles is about the sanctity of human life. The commandment is:  “Thou shall not kill”. It does not say: “don’t kill except in self defense”.  The principle is don’t kill.  Yet, we kill all of the time. Does that mean the principle should be watered down? One could argue that it has never been an absolute principle.  Wars and capital punishment have long violated this principle.  Nevertheless, its presence has influenced human behavior for thousands of years. It has not eliminated brutality but it has delegitimized it.

Since we can’t operate a civil order without killing people, we focus on the method of killing. When we remove someone from life, it should be done with a minimum of pain in the process.  The eighth amendment of the United States constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”. Water boarding is a cruel punishment, although we have recently learned it is not as unusual as we thought.  By holding accused terrorists as “enemy combatants”, they do not receive the protections of the American constitution.  Alumni of the Bush Administration and its defenders argue that without torture, America would have been subjected to further terrorist attacks. It is a claim that logically cannot be proven or disproven, but is, of course, irrelevant.

The danger in eliminating the ban on torture as a method of investigation is that it erodes a critical principle. We know that the principle will be violated during times of duress, but if it is eliminated, torture will be legitimized and its day to day use will be increased. Is that the type of world that America wants to build? Are those the values that we have raised the world’s strongest military to defend? America’s claim to moral leadership is fundamentally debased by the defense of torture.

It is a tough world out there and there are evil people who are out to do us harm. No one living in New York City or Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001 could ever deny that point. We need to be aggressive and vigilant in defending our families, property and ideals. But in the process of doing that we need to defend our way of life—and that includes our values and self image.

If America is subjected to another large scale terrorist attack, you can be certain that Dick Cheney and his pals will blame it on the “softer” approach to defense and interrogation advocated by President Obama. I believe this is a ridiculous argument. It is also a political argument and an effort to restore the post-Vietnam image of the Democrats as the party that is soft on defense. We do not need to use brutal tactics to reduce criminal behavior.  Vigilance, intelligence, skill and strategic thinking are far more effective.  Here in New York City nearly two decades of increasingly professionalized policing has taken place along side steady reductions in crime.  While civilian complaints against police misconduct continue, and that misconduct continues, no one would argue that the increased safety of New Yorkers was accomplished through increased incidences of police brutality.

Brutality is not a cost free strategy. When police act within the law and behave with professionalism and dignity, it delegitimizes outlaw conduct. George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s famous broken window theory states that if one window in an abandoned building is broken, soon the rest will be broken as well. Misconduct is contagious. The importance of order and rules of correct behavior should never be underestimated. I would argue that if the “window” is broken by the police, if our government tortures prisoners, the situation is worse. If the people who are responsible for enforcing our laws—and our principles—violate those laws and principles, it fosters disrespect for all principles and laws. Ultimately that makes us less safe. That is the case on the streets of New York City. When our police act within the law, they build respect for law.  If police are corrupt and brutal, the fabric of public order becomes frayed. While the analogy is far from perfect, I think it works that way in the international arena as well.

While I find torture personally abhorrent, and I suspect it is not all that effective as an interrogation method; the central point is that torture is not the type of behavior we expect from civilized, law abiding nations. When we look for loopholes in the Geneva Conventions we undermine the rule of law.  Torture is ineffective, illegal, and a violation or our principles. The arguments in favor of it are far weaker than the arguments against it.  President Obama is correct in prohibiting torture, and we should applaud his efforts to end its practice.


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Ken Jackson
Ken Jackson
14 years ago

Equating police brutality to techniques required in combating probable near term organized terrorists attacks is not valid and shows a lack of understanding of the issues at hand.

14 years ago

Yes you are definitely right our Principles and values are very important factors. According to me punishments are ought to be cruel. Thanks to President Obama for his efforts of prohibiting torture.

14 years ago

Benefiting from others’ use of torture is morally different from doing it yourself – but not that different. All the same, the idea that torture could become a part of America’s justice system is profoundly shocking.

14 years ago

When we are caught in an illegal offense we pray to God that please forgive me. Please don’t treat me cruelly. But if we catch a person doing an offense what do we say, He should not be forgiven. He must have a lesson for what he did. So, if we cannot discuss what kind of punishment we should be given that who are we to punish others. Obama is a great person who has thought about this and has prohibited torture. Thanks to him and thanks for sharing such a lovely article.

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