State-Sanctioned Torture

STATE-SANCTIONED TORTURE….One of the things that I think gets less attention than it deserves in the debate about torture is the crucial difference between torture and state-sanctioned torture. It’s an important distinction, and one that’s too often elided.

The infamous “ticking bomb scenario,” for example, asks whether we should torture someone if we had good reason to believe that this would cause our prisoner to reveal the location of the bomb and save thousands of innocent lives. Should we?

Keep in mind that it’s not practical issues that are at stake in this thought experiment. Rather, the question is simpler: assuming that torture would actually work in this case, would you do it?

I would. Likewise, in the unlikely event that I could travel back in time and murder Hitler, I’d do that too. In the imperfect world we inhabit, it’s simply not possible to say that there are never any circumstances in which we might choose the lesser of two evils.

But that’s not and never has been the question at stake in the torture debate. The real question is whether the United States should support the routine use of state-sanctioned torture, and that’s quite a different thing. Are beatings, waterboardings, endless hours of stress positions, cigarette butts in ear opening, strangulations, sleep deprivation, and murder examples of torture? And as a routine matter, should the CIA be allowed to use these techniques on prisoners in order to coerce information out of them?

I’m not naive enough to think that the United States has never engaged in torture. But even though we’ve fought in more than dozen wars in the past 70 years, some of them against existential enemies far more dangerous than al-Qaeda, we’ve never felt that routine torture ? or even abuse ? of prisoners should be government policy. On the contrary: it’s the kind of thing we always believed that only our enemies engaged in. But now we have met the enemy. And it is us.

In our hearts, we all know that state sanctioned torture has long been the exclusive tool of the thugs and dictators we’ve spent most of our history reviling. For reasons both moral and practical, we shouldn’t join their company.