Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
A US Senate report found that the CIA engaged in “brutal” torture of al-Qaeda suspects. Composed by the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the 525-page summary of the report established that the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees”, the CIA avoided congressional oversight, and misrepresented these horrendous acts.
Amongst the report’s revelations, the CIA captured and held 26 people who did not even meet their own criteria for detention; two CIA sources were taken into custody and spent 24 hours “shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position”; detainees were often made to wear diapers, to promote learned helplessness and humiliation; “suspected Islamist extremist” Gul Rahman died in ‘Detention Site Cobalt’ in 2002; detainees were subjected to mock executions, rectal feeding and rectal hydration; along with ‘waterboarding’ their subjects. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, considered to the principal architect of the September 11th attacks, was subjected to waterboarding 183 times in a single month.
As with the pornographic torture performed in Abu Ghraib, where people were recreationally abused to sate the boredom of the guards, this report could immensely damage the perceptions of the United States. President Barack Obama said:
These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.
The classical defence of torture is that of the ‘ticking bomb’. Before proceeding with cruel and unusual methods, the barriers to a utilitarian torture blossom: do you even have the right person in custody? Will the detainee talk? The clock counts down. Will the information provided prove to be new, relevant and actionable? Delivering physical pain has the predilection to manufacture false or misleading evidence, as a person will say anything to stop the ordeal. The question is not whether torture could work in some circumstances. The question is whether inducing substantial pain will work on the person presently in custody, with their fingernails yet unmolested by hot needles. Darius Rejali, an academic specialised on torture, said:
My position is there is no empirical evidence to suggest that this works, at least in the way that people claim that it does in the war against terrorism.
Even without the deontological objections or legal limitations forbidding torture, it may not be an effective and reliable means of extracting useful information. The torturer cannot know in advance if their actions will yield these new details: the very presumption that underlies its justification. Torture – as in the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario – is often framed as the necessary transgression against human decency, made in importunate circumstances. If such illegal methods became part of an agency’s secretive and standard practices, then that agency is acting beyond the law and unaccountable from oversight. At that point, a country ceases to be a nation of laws, and begins its putrid metamorphosis into a banana republic. Furthermore, these ‘enhanced’ techniques may create martyrs and proselytisers.
In our quest to vanquish monsters, we must never become monsters.