More Torture Excuses

Thuong Duc
Thuong Duc
January 23 1967, Thuong Duc, Vietnam, A Viet Cong prisoner is interrogated at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang. | Photo: National Archives | Link | Thuong Duc, Viet Cong, Prisoner, Torture, Vietnam, Interrogation, Blindfold, Inhumane,

Torture defenders are always in the wrong.

We've known since before Obama took office that the U.S. used torture in the war on terror. We've also known that some people think torture is justified. So not only is the new Senate report on torture no surprise, neither is the desperate flailing among torture defenders trying to hand-wave the report away.

Case in point, right-wing pundit and torture apologist Jonah Goldberg in a recent National Review column. Goldberg doesn't make any original points about why torture is OK, but he manages to squeeze in almost every cliche conservatives have been using since Abu Ghraib

"The people we torture are evil, the worst of the worst. They wouldn't hesitate to torture us, why should we hesitate to torture them"
This is, of course, just a recycling of old conservative talking-points on why the Bill of Rights doesn't really matter. The only people who have something to fear from having their rights violated are the people who've done something wrong. Surely you don't think the Constitution applies to guilty people? Or that the laws and treaties making torture a crime protect people who hate us?

Well, yes. There are no exemptions in the Constitution or the law based on "Well, the president says this person had it coming." And in any case, many of the people we tortured or had other countries torture for us were innocent.

"We're good, they're evil: "When John McCain was brutally tortured -- far, far more severely than anything we've done to the 9/11 plotters -- it was done to elicit false confessions and other statements for purposes of propaganda. When we tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it was to get actionable intelligence on ongoing plots. It seems to me that's an important moral distinction."
Well if you overlook that the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in a single month. And that many of the people we tortured were innocent and so didn't have any actionable intelligence. And that multiple interrogators have said torture is ineffective at getting good intel. If you ignore all that, maybe Goldberg has a point.

Of course you also have to ignore that the laws on torture don't include exceptions for "when the president thinks it's necessary." Which is a good thing. After all, Iran could easily use Goldberg's logic if it caught some American troops in its borders ("We tortured them to get actionable intelligence on ongoing American plots.").


Torture is the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain. |
"Other people torture way worse than we do!"
Goldberg invokes North Vietnam in the quote above, while other torture-lovers have said the same of Saddam Hussein: He tortured Iraqis much worse than we did, so what's the big deal?

Suffice to say, if your ethical benchmark is "better than Saddam Hussein," you're doing ethics wrong.

The ticking-bomb scenario, again touched on in the quote above. This is the argument that if a terrorist was about to set off a nuclear bomb and the only way to prevent it was to torture information out of someone, surely it would be justified. And once you accept that, you accept that torture is necessary--the only issue is where the threshold for authorizing it should be.

I find this a particularly flimsy argument as there's never been a ticking-bomb situation in the war on terror. Even the Bush administration, despite its many false statements, hasn't claimed there was.

Nor do I think it logically proves that we have to accept torture in other situations. Say, for example, that a hypothetical terrorist about to blow up Chicago with a nuclear weapon has a two-year-old girl strapped to his back as a human shield. The only way to avert a nuclear explosion and tens of thousands of deaths is for a cop to shoot through the child, killing the girl and the terrorist both. It's one thing to say the cop is justified. It's quite another to say "Everyone who thinks this was the right call has to accept killing children is sometimes a necessary evil. We just have to decide when cost/benefit analysis justifies it."
Goldberg does refer to torture as a "necessary evil" but he fixates on "necessary" and ignores "evil." That's a mistake.

We violated international law when we tortured people. We violated American law. We violated the principles of human morality that our country supposedly holds dear.

There's nothing in that decent human beings should support. Why is that so hard to understand?

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Updated Jul 11, 2018 1:00 AM UTC | More details


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