Fretting Over Torture

Only the dead, said Plato, have seen the end of war. And because states are constituted with the fundamental purpose of securing the lives of their citizens, they are obliged to undertake whatever actions serve that need — but in ways which conform to the moral sense and to a consideration of the consequences to the states.

As every writer on war since Sun Tzu has stated, an essential element of securing the populace is in the gathering of intelligence, whether by reconnaissance, espionage or in the questioning of captured enemies. No one, at least since the late Henry Stimson (the one-time Secretary of State who said gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail) would contend that a state is not justified in eliciting information from an enemy whose means and intent demonstrate an immediate danger to the state.

It seems plain that a state is justified in undertaking any action that will deter or interdict an enemy whose capabilities and intent demonstrate, beyond all judgment and argument, a violent act that will kill citizens whom the state is obliged to secure. Assuming the evidences are beyond question, and the imminence of the act is certain, then the state may take the life of the assailant, or, if taking his life is unnecessary, may do those things required to make it impossible for him to carry out his intended act.

Supposing, however, that he only knows of the imminence of such an act, and that the state is certain that 1) knows, and 2) is our only source of information necessary to us, to stop the act. Are we then — is the state then — justified in doing what is necessary to “find out”?

It would seem the answer is yes. And as Charles Krauthammer has noted, such universally-admired icons of humanity and beneficence as Yitzhak Rabin would agree with the proposition. The question then becomes complicated in three ways: first, when the evidence, while compelling, is not absolute; second, when the means by which necessary information is to be obtained, including “torture,” are not always or even usually known to be efficacious; last, in our democratic republic, in which norms of state behavior in assuring security, are defined and supervised by representatives of the people.

There is a universal condemnation among liberal elites of “waterboarding,” and certain other means of gaining information. But the characterization of waterboarding — and other so-called “enhanced interrorgation techniques,” a curious, near-Orwellian euphemism — as torture is open to doubt. What was not torture and therefore legal in 2002 — as waterboarding may well have been — is not the same as what torture, i.e., illegal interrogation methods, are now.

There is, further, widespread disagreement as to the efficacy of torture of all kinds, the very consideration of which has forced the organs of American culture to devise (as they commonly do) fresh euphemisms such as the aforementioned “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Finally, there is the issue of oversight: who is to determine what forms, if any, of torture, are appropriate? If the “who” comprises elected representatives of the people, and if they depend for their re-election on the peoples’ estimate of the value of their services to them, and if they sense that the people believe torture, in some cases, may be justified, is it not likely their representatives will heed their counsel? They usually do.

The issue is close to a conundrum — a problem without a demonstrable solution. Beyond this is the individual conscience on the part of those who secure the state — a conscience educated, firm in judgment, and painstaking in evaluating evidence, with a consideration of the effects of applied torture, by representatives of the state, on the state itself. Will not an adversary likely use on our state’s citizens the same means of extracting information, or worse, than we have done to the adversary’s?

What is certain is that the political hypocrisy of politicians who now following the popular will pronounce themselves appalled at what only a few months or years ago they had permitted (silently, demurely, acquiesced in) is itself as corrosive to public standards as the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” it affects to deplore. What is also certain is that our nation’s adversaries are prepared to do whatever they believe will bring about the destruction of the United States and its people. They are untroubled by the moral scruples that cause American citizens to consider issues like this one and that knowing this must guide our deliberations in securing citizens.

One once heard of battlefield Christmas truces and acts of singular compassion between enemies at war. As the poet Hopkins wrote in a different context, Now no longer. It is the blight man was born for.

As is its wont, the country is now in a terrible moral fret — this time, about torture. Is it ever right? Is it ever warranted? Is it ever effective? Does its use degrade the user? Will its use assure our enemies’ labors to cause our citizens and soldiers further suffering and harm, perhaps death?

We, the living, have neither seen an end of war, nor the beginning of the end of the war we are now engaged in. If we are to see an end to this war, or vouchsafe a course to victory to our children, we must emerge from this moral fret over torture.

To do so, we must have two things.

First, we must end the debate over whether waterboarding and the other so-called “enhanced interrogation methods” worked by releasing publicly the documents that will prove or disprove the point with finality. If we can, as we have, release the documents which show the methods by which the interrogations were conducted, we must be able to release the documents that show whether those methods produced information that saved lives.

Second, once we have determined what has worked (and our elected representatives decided from a moral point what we may and may not do), we must restore clarity to the law so that our soldiers and intelligence agents know what is torture and what is not. That clarity is now, sadly, entirely lacking.

This would take no special courage to do. It is only a duty, our duty, which must be performed.