The recent killing of Osama bin Laden has caused advocates of torture to crawl out of their hidey-holes once more and start claiming that torture was somehow necessary to the operation. Exactly how is not quite clear. None of the posts that I’ve read on the issue explain the cause-effect relationship between torture and killing ; they just insist that it exists.
There are a lot of political issues in our complex modern world. On some of them I may be wrong. On the issue of torture I’m certain that I’m right in opposing it at all times and in all circumstances. Torture is wrong. Our founders said so clearly in the eight amendment. The United States never used torture during the American Revolution or the Civil War or either world war or any other conflict prior to the presidency of George W. Bush. The mere fact that we are even having a national debate about torture is evidence of America’s moral decline. The utterly lame arguments that some people offer for it, apparently in all seriousness, are evidence of America’s intellectual decline.
The most common one is the “ticking time-bomb scenario”. The basic idea is that a terrorist has planted a bomb that’s set to go off in a few hours and kill thousands of people. The terrorist has then been captured by authorities who know that the bomb exists but don’t know where it is and the terrorist refuses to tell. In this case, the torture advocate says, we would be justified in torturing the person in order to find the bomb’s location and save lives.
Such scenarios happen in movies and on TV but never in real life. Establishing U.S. policy for a ticking time-bomb scenario would be like establishing U.S. policy for the day when intelligent apes seek world domination. It would, in other words, be quite stupid. It’s worth noting that most torture advocates are Republicans and most Republicans are proud of being anti-Hollywood, making them look all the more ridiculous when they want to repeal part of the Bill of Rights because of Hollywood movies. And aren’t conservatives supposed to be in favor of the Constitution? Oh never mind. All of these contradictions are making my head hurt.
But even if we decided to throw out morality, right and wrong, the Constitution, logic, and common humanity, there would remain yet another reason to oppose torture. Torture is bad policy. Good treatment of prisoners is good policy, because if we have a reputation for treating prisoners well then our enemies will surrender more readily. This was made clear during World War II. America had built up a centuries-long reputation for human rights. As a result, enemy soldiers surrendered readily, often knowing that life as a prisoner in America would be better than life as a soldier. In 1943, Italian garrisons on the island of Pantelleria surrendered without a fight because they wanted to be our prisoners, as did many Italians soldiers in Sicily. At the end of the war, German soldiers swam across the freezing Elbe River in droves so that they could have the joy of surrendering to us. If we’d been in the habit of torturing people, this would not have happened, and we’d have had to fight much longer and harder to win the war.
Sadly, the reputation that earlier generations of Americans worked hard to build up was completely squandered by George W. Bush for no reason whatever, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get it back. This is one of many reasons why Bush is the worst President in American history.