[Warning: This article contains disturbing material… because it’s about the CIA torture program.]
Suppose that you are a man advancing in years who has yearned all his life to become a father. You and your wife have tried over and over to conceive, but it just hasn’t happened. Realizing that if you don’t father a child soon, your genes will die with you, you hit on a surefire strategy.
At night, you’ll pull on a ski mask and wait in the shadows of a parking lot until you spot a nubile woman. Then you’ll seize her, silence her, and rape her. Do this enough times, and one of these women is bound to get pregnant.
Everyone who thinks this is an appropriate strategy, raise your hand … and slap yourself with it. Hard. As horrifying as the scenario is, it’s remarkably similar to the torture strategy that the CIA adopted, and that former Vice President Dick Cheney continues to defend.
The analogy holds not only for its utterly amoral brutality, but also for its futility. In the first place, there’s always a strong chance of failure—the rapist might be sterile—and an even stronger chance of devastating consequences, to the rape victims of course but also to the rapist and his wife (that would be us, the American public).
Worse yet, a far more promising alternative‑fertility treatments‑exists, and even if it didn’t, a basic ethical principle holds that you cannot justify evil acts by pointing to noble ends. Nothing demonstrates this so well as the just-released Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture.
Religions pretend that evil acts have far-away consequences, such as burning in hell or being reborn as a frog. Humanists know that evil acts have immediate consequences: they redefine who we are. If a man allows himself to resort to rape, he has become a contemptible creature, and even if no one else knows that, he does. From that moment on he can never take seriously any praise or respect offered him by others, for they do not know as he surely does the loathsome hypocrite he has become.
Similarly, when a U.S. government agency stoops to near-drownings. slamming prisoners repeatedly against the wall, rectal insertions, sexual humiliation, rape and murder threats against family members, prolonged ice baths, and endless sleep deprivation, it becomes one with Stalin and the NKVD, with Josef Mengele and the Nazi death camp guards, and, ironically, with Saddam Hussein and his Abu Ghraib compatriots.
All for nothing. The CIA’s claims that torture produced “actionable” information proved to be a tissue of lies. Every single claim has now been debunked. The report also shows that humane efforts did work; many al-Qaeda suspects who were not tortured provided valuable information. In at least one case, a prisoner cooperated fully and was then rewarded with torture just to find out if he was holding anything back.
Don’t take my word for all this—or that of any TV commentator. Read the executive summary of the Senate report for yourself. Then ponder the consequences. “Imagine if we didn’t go down that road,” said former FBI agent Ali Soufan to the New York Times. “Imagine. We played into the enemy’s hand. Now we have American hostages in orange jumpsuits because we put people in orange jumpsuits.”
Beyond doubt, Islamist militants would have humiliated, tortured, and killed prisoners regardless of U.S. actions. But now the moral high ground has collapsed. We are not, as a nation, equivalent to ISIS, but when Islamist recruiters work on the minds of the young and vulnerable, how much easier will their task be when they can point to the evils done in our name?
Some will argue that it would have been better, therefore, to keep the whole thing secret. I disagree, first and foremost on moral grounds, but second on pragmatic ones. Torture on this scale cannot be kept secret; it can only unconvincingly be denied. Look at how much we know of the horrific prison camps in North Korea, the world’s most secretive state. Better that we own up to our atrocities and, like postwar Germany, commit ourselves to cleansing our society and institutions of torture altogether and forever. It’s the right thing to do.