Is Torture Always Morally Wrong?

December 19, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsTorture Region: United States

Is Torture Always Morally Wrong?

Safety is as much an American value as freedom.

Is torture a violation of American traditions and values?

There is in fact a long tradition of American torture and harsh interrogations. A version of waterboarding was used in the Philippine-American war. Torture was also employed in Vietnam; veterans tell of attaching electrodes to the genitals of prisoners to get them to talk. Rubber hoses were standard equipment in many police stations across the country. No one would say that the United States ever came close to resembling Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia — or modern China or modern Iran. For the most part, American torture has been employed in unusual or high-pressure situations (as was the case after 9/11). It has not been standard operating procedure.

Even if we accept the legitimacy of harsh interrogations, it’s important that they remain rare and unusual, which seems to have been how the Bush Administration proceeded. Insofar as we know, waterboarding, the most controversial of the CIA procedures, was employed on only three suspects and none after 2003. Abu Ghraib was an aberration, perpetrated by sadists.

Opponents look at incidents like Abu Ghraib and raise the problem of the “slippery slope.” It’s a valid concern. Once officials charged with obtaining information make use of torture, it’s possible they could become addicted to it. But there is no evidence that torture was on its way to becoming commonplace during the Bush years, even at the height of the post-9/11 panic. And as the altogether healthy public outcry prompted by the Senate report demonstrates, as a society we are a long way from the slippery slope.

Anyone who believes torture has had no part in America’s traditions doesn’t know the history. Still, traditions change as values change. The third degree — shining a light in a subject’s face while subjecting him to grueling interrogation — was so widely accepted as a part of police procedure that crime movies featured it throughout the 1930s and 40s without ever shocking the consciences of audiences. Today, the third degree would be viewed as harsh by some, as torture by others. As our values have changed, we have undoubtedly become a more humane society today than we were in the not-so-distant past.

But our current values, like those of the past, are not set in stone, and they are being challenged at the present time by events like 9/11. As Americans, we are proud of our liberties, often hard-won over decades and centuries. Public safety is a value too. It doesn’t evoke the same kind of pride as liberty, though perhaps it should. The fact that we are a remarkably secure country is no accident. Security requires enormous effort and expense, especially now, with the threat of terrorism looming over us for as far as the eye can see.

Liberty and security are both values, but as the torture debate indicates, they are not natural allies and require the closest attention when they seem to be going off in different directions. Keeping a proper balance between them is essential even though there is no preordained formula for doing so. Some voices in the Bush Administration lost sight of our multiple and conflicting values, and weighed in only on one side. The anti-torture absolutists of the present time, with their claims to be preserving American values, are weighing in only on the other side. What they don’t seem to realize is that safety is as much an American value as freedom.

Barry Gewen is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.