Americans ought to be uneasy about one policy justification that has become extremely popular since Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden. The smoke from the raid had barely dissipated before a chorus of voices contended that information obtained from al-Qaeda operatives through “enhanced interrogation” (i.e, waterboarding, extended sleep deprivation, etc.) was instrumental, indeed crucial, to the mission that took down the arch-terrorist.
Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) chastised those insisting that waterboarding “should be stopped and never used again,” arguing that “we got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden.” Michael Hayden said that in addition to “birthers” and kooky 9-11 “truthers,” a third denomination should be added to this “faith-based constellation: interrogation deniers.” Former Bush administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, chief speechwriter Marc Theissen, and Chief of Staff Andy Card, echoed those comments. Rumsfeld touted the success of the practice without equivocation. “I think that anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques…did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn’t facing the truth.”
What is so striking about those rationales is that proponents seemed to regard only one consideration as pertinent: did enhanced interrogation “work”? They were generally uninterested in the question of whether the practice was consistent with the values of a decent society—much less one based on profound respect for human rights and basic civil liberties.
Most of those singing the praises of enhanced interrogation following Bin Laden’s death simply ignored that troubling issue. But some of the more vocal types scorned such moral qualms. John Yoo, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the authors of the so-called torture memo during the Bush administration, oozed disdain for opponents of waterboarding and other harsh measures. Critics of enhanced interrogation, he stated , “would be content to leave bin Laden alive in Abbottabad, Pakistan, planning more attacks on the U.S.,” so that “al-Qaeda commanders could stay comfortable in U.S. prisons.” That view is all too typical of contemporary conservatives. Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity epitomized the attitude two years ago when he stated on his radio show: “Frankly, only a moral fool would say that there are no circumstances under which they can envision using enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding.”
Such contempt for moral considerations is both puzzling and alarming coming from citizens—much less leaders—of an enlightened democracy. Even the pervasive use of the Orwellian euphemism “enhanced interrogation” rather than the more honest term “torture” suggests a moral rot within portions of the political and opinion elite. But their almost exclusive focus on whether or not the technique works is even more disturbing.
One long-standing hallmark of Western thought is the emphasis on fundamental rights and the rule of law. Advocates of liberty understood that without such constraints, liberty would be imperiled and a free society could ultimately descend into tyranny. As Lord Acton observed, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even during the twentieth century, most Americans were suspicious of unfettered pragmatism, and viewed with horror the assertion of Vladimir Lenin and his communist followers that the end justifies the means. To the contrary, Americans stressed that even when the goals were worthy, the use of unconstitutional, illegal, or immoral means could not be justified.
Unfortunately, the arguments that proponents of enhanced interrogation are using resemble those of Lenin far more than those of his adversaries. Whether or not a measure works is clearly an appropriate consideration. If a policy is ineffective—as for example, the war on drugs, now entering its fifth decade without meaningful, positive results —that creates a powerful case for changing the policy. But when important moral or ethical issues are at stake, the effectiveness of a policy should be only a secondary consideration.
Failing to understand that point can lead to a dangerous erosion of liberty. Clearly, terrorists are among the most odious of people, and trying to save innocent lives from their outrages is a worthy objective. But cutting moral corners in the name of expediency is a very dangerous business. Only the most naïve individuals dare assume that supposedly exceptional measures such as torture will forever be limited to terrorist cases. The history of other dubious law enforcement tactics belies such complacency. It is a safe bet that supporters of RICO assumed that it would be used only against the mafia and other elements of organized crime, not overly strident demonstrators at abortion clinics. But it has been used in that way. It is an equally safe bet that advocates of laws against child pornography never imagined that the statutes would used to prosecute 15- and 16- year-olds who foolishly sent nude or semi-nude cell phone photos of themselves to a boyfriend or girlfriend. But those laws have invoked for that purpose.
How long will it be before there are calls to use enhanced interrogation techniques on drug traffickers, kidnappers, or other miscreants? And if that happens, the constitutional barriers against torture will become little more than a quaint historical memory.