Torture Proponents’ Desire for Distance Is Telling

President Obama’s recent decision to release memos that describe the Bush administration’s policy of torturing detainees in terrorism cases has raised a greater outcry among the ideological supporters of torture than actually banning the techniques did.

But if the question of whether it is appropriate to repeatedly waterboard a prisoner, keep him awake for 11 straight days, and confine him in a box filled with stinging insects amounts to a "policy difference," as Sen. John McCain recently claimed, why not release all the secret memos, shed light on how these policies have been implemented, and then debate the results?

If this is merely a policy dispute, similar to debates about the estate tax or Social Security, why would those who support the torture of detainees fight to hide the policy that they believe is right from public view? After all, good ideas ought to be able to hold their own in open discussion.

But the truth is that this is about far more than a policy difference, and it is about far more than finding the most efficacious method of gathering intelligence. The question of what values we should compromise in the pursuit of security is a question of conscience. And so the desire of the apologists of torture to keep the torture memos and similar artifacts out of the public’s eye is illuminating. It is analogous to the criminal’s desire to erase his trail and destroy all evidence of his crime.

At every step, torture supporters are fighting to increase and make permanent the cognitive and emotional distance that separates them from the crimes in which they have been co-conspirators. They claim that it is about "moving on." No doubt any criminal would prefer to skip the indictment, the trial, and the conviction in favor of having the charges dropped so that he or she can "move on" and "look forward, not backward."

Observe how the torture apologists constantly attempt to shift the debate away from what is concrete – narratives of a specific individual who was tortured by U.S. interrogators, photographs of torture taking place at Abu Ghraib, and memos describing and authorizing torture techniques in gruesome detail – to abstract questions of efficacy and hypothetical, "what-if" narratives about national security.

In a recent interview on Fox News, former vice president Dick Cheney, one of the most vocal and prominent American supporters of torture, condemned Obama’s decision to release the memos on the grounds that Obama had not also released memos that supposedly show that torture "works," i.e., that it is an effective way of getting information from detainees.

But we heard no explanation from Cheney of how torturing another human being is consistent with a humane and just system of values. One might also ask whether Cheney has ever witnessed the techniques he endorses, or been present while they were implemented, or inflicted them himself.

The struggle over the word "torture," too, is a prime example of this desire of torture apologists to remove themselves from what they support. Certainly, "torture" is a political word with political consequences. But if television networks and newspapers think they are being neutral and apolitical by describing torture as "enhanced interrogation," they ought to think again.

The adjective "enhanced" implies that enhanced interrogation is a superior form of ordinary interrogation or formal questioning. "Enhanced interrogation" is a euphemism for torture, and its use is one more technique that allows torture supporters to maintain distance between their consciences and their crimes.

These distancing techniques allow torture apologists to attempt to reclaim the high ground in the debate by turning it into a conversation about who is ready to make the "tough calls" that are supposedly "necessary to keep American safe." The argument runs something like this: Some go on about human rights, American values, and international law, but at the end of the day, the challenges we face require that we go beyond ordinary interrogation in favor of "enhanced" interrogation.

For all their supposed tough-nosed realism, however, torture supporters seem remarkably uncomfortable with hearing the details of exactly what they support. For all their eagerness to confront and defeat America’s enemies at all costs, their approach is decidedly more managerial than in-the-trenches; not only are the ideologues of torture the the ones giving the orders, casting the votes, and providing the intellectual rationalizations from afar rather than anywhere near the dungeons where their fantasies are made real upon real human beings, they don’t even want to hear or see the details, after the fact, of what they have done.

That, more than any argument, ought to tell us something about the justice of their cause.

Author: Ryan McCarl

Ryan McCarl is a writer and student at the University of North Carolina School of Law. He writes about education at