Why Torture is Evil

Most defenders of torture rely on the argument that torture saves (American) lives, and that torture is therefore justified and moral. Such defenders often cite fantastic scenarios similar to the following: Imagine a terrorist group is planning to detonate a nuclear bomb in the middle of a major US city. Now imagine that one of the terrorists is captured by the CIA. The terrorist won’t reveal the information needed to stop the attack so he must be tortured until he gives up the information, allowing the CIA to stop the attack and save hundreds of thousands of lives. Such defenders then pose the question, "How could it be wrong to torture one evil person in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives?"  

In other words such defenders cite as their "proof" that torture is moral an imaginary scenario which has never occurred and which has no basis in reality.  In fact, US Supreme court justice Antonin Scalia defended the use of torture at a legal conference in Canada in this way by specifically referencing the popular television drama 24, in which the fictional US special agent Jack Bauer routinely tortures terror suspects to save American lives in situations similar to that described above. Scalia stated: 

Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles… . He saved hundreds of thousands of lives… Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?… Say that criminal law is against him? "You have the right to a jury trial?" Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.

Recently, former Vice President Dick Cheney used essentially this rationale to defend the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme temperatures, which the International Committee of the Red Cross says constitute torture. Cheney stated that, "I am convinced, absolutely convinced, that we saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives," by using such techniques and called the federal government’s efforts to prevent terror attacks since 2001 "one of the greatest success stories of American intelligence." 

Sadly, Cheney’s claim about the virtues of torture is more no connected to reality than is Scalia’s. Cheney’s defense of torture rests on three false and/or highly questionable assumptions: Firstly, that saving lives was the Bush administration’s primary purpose for introducing the use of torture; secondly that the intelligence gained by torture actually prevented attacks on the American homeland; thirdly, that torture actually saved American lives generally. 

This first assumption is incorrect because much of the torture Cheney is now retrospectively defending had nothing to do with saving American lives, but rather with obtaining evidence that a link existed between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government. Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff of the Department of State during the term of Secretary of State Colin Powell, reports that:

Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda. So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qaeda-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop. There in fact were no such contacts.

Such a link was crucial to find in order to implicate the Iraqi regime in the 9/11 attacks, which could then provide a justification for the US to invade Iraq and install a new pro-US government, something which prominent members of the Bush administration had been advocating since at least 1998, and for reasons that had nothing to do with international Islamic terror groups. 

Under duress of torture (where Egyptian interrogators also made him believe he would be buried alive), Al-Libi fabricated the story that the Iraqi government trained al-Qaeda operatives in chemical and biological warfare. This incorrect information was cited by President Bush in a speech on Oct 7, 2002 and by Secretary of State Colin Powell at his famous speech at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, and proved crucial in giving the Bush administration sufficient domestic and international support to launch the invasion of Iraq in mid-march 2003. 

So torture after 9/11 had more to do with starting a new war in which further American lives would be lost than with saving Americans from future terror attacks.   

The second assumption underlying Cheney’s argument, that the intelligence gained by torture has prevented attacks against the American homeland, is highly questionable. Cheney claims that, "Every senior official who has been briefed on these classified matters knows of specific attacks that were in the planning stages and were stopped by the programs we put in place." However, a May 2004 report by the CIA inspector general contradicts this claim, noting that the enhanced interrogation program produced some useful information but that "it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks," according to a declassified Justice Department memo summarizing the report.  

Additionally, Milton Bearden, former CIA station chief of the Pakistan, Nigeria, and Sudan offices, says that Cheney’s claims are likely false, noting that if such proof did exist, "I cannot imagine that the system would not have leaked such a story. It would have been leaked in a New York minute." Until evidence to support Cheney’s claim is produced, it is impossible to know that any attacks on the American homeland have been prevented.  

What is clear and indisputable, however, is that Cheney’s torture policy has directly led to the deaths of thousands of US servicemen and women, thus refuting the third assumption underlying Cheney’s claim, namely that torture has saved American lives. Let me explain how this is the case: Once the US had successfully occupied Iraq, the US Army began to meet resistance from a variety of armed groups, whose stated goal was to expel the American occupiers. Rather than order the withdrawal of the US Army from Iraq and remove US troops from harm’s way (the obvious choice if preserving American lives is one’s priority), the Bush administration remained determined to establish a long-term military presence in the country. In order to defeat the fledgling Iraqi insurgency, which targeted US troops with road side bombs, mortars, and sniper fire, it now became crucial to gather intelligence that could prevent such attacks. Because US intelligence gathering was poor, the US military resorted to the wide-scale round up and interrogation of thousands of adult Iraqi males (as well as some women and children), 70% to 90% of which were arrested by mistake, according to US intelligence officials.  

US interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan soon began using many of the enhanced interrogation techniques pioneered in Guantánamo and the secret CIA prisons on these detainees. According to a report written by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, the "augmented techniques for Guantánamo migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded," resulting in the torture of Iraqi and Afghan detainees in a fashion far more brutal than the torture methods officially endorsed by top Bush Administration officials.  

Methods of abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan have included stuffing a detainee into a sleeping bag, wrapping him with electrical cord, and suffocating him to death; covering a detainee’s head with a plastic bag, then shackling him "in a crucifixion-like pose that inhibited his ability to breathe" until he died of asphyxiation, and until the guard on duty was surprised the detainees’ arms "didn’t pop out of their sockets;" beating a detainee "with a flashlight so severely that he eventually died from his injuries;" stripping detainees naked and forcing them to masturbate; "[b]reaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; [and] sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light."

US Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis, who served in various US prisons throughout Iraq, including in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, described how the rationale of torturing prisoners to save American lives led US interrogators to torture not only suspected insurgents, but also regular Iraqis known to be innocent as well:  

Once introduced into war, torture will inevitably spread because the ticking bombs are everywhere. Each and every prisoner, without exception, has the potential to be the one that provides the information that will save American lives. So if you accept the logic that we have to perform torture to prevent deaths, each and every prisoner is deserving of torture. In a situation like Iraq, it wasn’t just a few abstract lives that might be saved somewhere, at some future time. The mortars came almost every day. The life in question was my very own. Once we accepted that any prisoner might be holding information that could save lives, we gladly used everything in our tool box on everyone. This resulted in the expansion of the class of people who could be tortured. Now it included people who had been picked up for questioning but were not being suspected of  being insurgents, and it included people who were picked up on hunches — people against whom we had no solid evidence — and it included relatives of our real targets. Again, I see the spread of torture to these groups as natural and inevitable. At the time, I barely noticed it happening (See Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogators Dark Journey Through Iraq, by Tony Lagouranis, pg. 245).

Public outrage among Iraqis, as well as Arabs from neighboring countries, as a result of the US use of torture, caused the ranks of those wishing to fight the American occupiers to swell. This in turn caused the number of attacks against US troops in Iraq to increase, leading to higher American casualties. Matthew Alexander, who led an interrogations team assigned to a Special Operations task force in Iraq in 2006, and who was responsible for obtaining the intelligence which led to the US military killing the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, described how the use of torture contributed to an increase in US military deaths in Iraq:  

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me — unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.

Alexander’s view is reinforced by the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (abbreviated as NIE, it is a report representing the consensus view of the 16 US intelligence agencies, including the CIA). The New York Times reported that the NIE concluded that "the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks," while previous drafts of the NIE "describe actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal." 

So not only has torture not saved any American lives, it has actually led to more Americans being killed and increased the overall terrorist threat to America. But what was the alternative? After 9/11, did the Bush Administration have any other choice? Yes. Rather than announcing that the protections of the Geneva Conventions did not apply to US-held detainees and introducing enhanced interrogation techniques, thus opening the door to even more heinous forms of torture, Cheney and his colleagues could have dealt with the problem of terrorism by pursuing the criminals who carried out the 9/11 atrocities using the police and interrogation methods of the FBI. They could have refrained from invading Iraq, a country which had never attacked US soil and had no part in 9/11, and thereby avoided killing tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Even after the invasion of Iraq had taken place, the Bush administration could have withdrawn US troops from that country once resistance to the US occupation began, and after it became clear that most Iraqis did not welcome the US presence. Instead, they chose to impose their will on Iraqis by torture and violence, and put Americans in harms way in the process. 

But what if you really could save hundreds of thousands of lives by torturing a terrorist, and thereby stop a massive, imminent attack on an American city? If such a scenario were to present itself, it would be reasonable to say that torturing that person would be moral. However, because such a scenario exists only in our imaginations, the question of whether the use of torture is moral in such a circumstance is irrelevant. Instead, we can be sure that anyone using such a rationale to endorse the use of torture in the real world is doing so to justify a policy that will, in reality, lead to the torture of hundreds if not thousands of innocents, as has actually occurred in Iraq. That is why torture is illegal under international law under all circumstances, and why Tony Lagouranis, the Army interrogator quoted above and who himself participated in torturing Iraqi detainees, feels that, "If you don’t include torturing helpless prisoners in your definition of evil, your definition of evil is meaningless." 

Author: Will Van Wagenen

Will Van Wagenen has a Bachelors Degree in German from Brigham Young University, and a Master's degree in Theology from Harvard University. Will spent seven months in Iraq doing human rights work in 2005-2006. He is a regular contributor to the Mormon Worker.