I’m hung up on the torture thing. Yes, we knew it was going on before, and the released memos simply confirmed that reality. But they’ve also brought about a new wave of those defending it as a sane policy. Cheney and Rove are front and center, but many have joined the chorus to sing that torture makes us safer. I wrote about this a few days ago and questioned the efficacy of torture and pondered about whether it was an end or a means. But now I’m pondering a simpler and yet more confounding question. Is it ever the right thing to do?

This seems to be the basis of the argument for having torture in the interrogation toolbox. The claims that it has saved lives. There are those claiming that it really hasn’t, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that it has. That torturing a prisoner at Guantanamo provided evidence to avert an attack that would have hurt hundreds of people otherwise. Was it right to torture him?

This is the point where there’s a tendency to get all Hollywood. Given that you know this guy is a major scumbag, why should we be concerned about torturing him? He deserves it. If we get valuable intelligence, then it was worth it. If not, he got what was coming to him.

However, we can’t stop the thinking at that point and declare victory. The big reality question is, how do we know he’s a bad guy? Sure, in the movies we get to see all the evildoing on the screen before the hero opts for torture. But the real world is rarely so black and white. Jurisprudence says we put him through due process first. That he’s innocent until proven guilty. But that takes time, and even then, we know too well that some innocent people still wind up getting convicted. So deciding he’s a bad guy is someone’s judgment. But who’s do we trust?

This would be a good point to think through the possibility that your son, your brother, or your friend could be the one under suspicion. Who would you trust to make the choice over whether or not they should be tortured? Should we torture them now, just in case? Maybe you should also consider that your bad “guy” might not be a young adult male. What if it was a her? What if it was an elderly person or a child? The bright lines start to blur in a hurry don’t they?

I’m not going to lose any sleep over the notion of a terrorist who has or would kill innocent people being tortured. But I can’t bring myself to condone torture as a standing tool for extracting information because that means that somewhere along the way innocent people will be tortured for information they do not have. And as torture becomes easier to use (and it will if we use it), the number of innocents tortured will climb.

It gets even murkier when you start to think about whether or not we’d support the torture of Americans by other governments. It would be wrong headed to assume that all Americans abroad are innocent. Certainly, from the perspective of a foreign government, there will be cases where they might think they have probable cause, but we might think the person innocent. Would we not be outraged if that citizen were tortured on foreign soil? Would not the foreign government feel every bit as entitled as we do to torture when they have what they believe is probable cause?

In the end, I think torture is like a nuclear weapon. The fact that it’s out there likely has some deterrent effect. But in practical usage it rarely achieves the desired end goal, hurts lots of innocent people, and in hindsight, always seems there was a better option.

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