The release this past week of the Senate’s “Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program” has exposed the dark underbelly of intelligence gathering to the bright daylight of public opinion. This is a good thing (the exposure, not the torture). The release of this information and subsequent national soul-searching reflects the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the American soul (insofar as a country can have such a thing). We, as a nation, are able to strike out and destroy anything that might be harmful while simultaneously being filled with remorse for doing so. “Look at the flowers… look at the flowers” (Walking Dead reference).
So while it is heartening to see the justifiable outrage of those who have learned of the sadistic crimes committed in the name of their “safety”, it is equally discouraging to witness a vigorously jingoistic defense of these crimes. The most common defense offered is a plausibly reasonable one: it produced actionable intelligence that saved lives. You know, the greater good and all. Unfortunately for that narrative, according to the published report, that is not the case. At best the torture only confirmed information that had already been acquired elsewhere using non-torture means. At worst, people were tortured to prove a negative. That is, the CIA didn’t think the detainees knew anything of value, but they tortured them anyway just to make sure. Let me repeat that so the enormity of that evil sinks in. They tortured people they thought were innocent and of no intelligence value.
The more reprehensible torture defense is the “I just don’t care” defense. This is most succinctly portrayed in a burgeoning Internet meme depicting a person falling from the World Trade Center with the text overlaid “This is why I don’t give a damn how we gathered information from terrorists.” Yes, 9/11 was an awful, horrific, tragic event, but it is a complete non sequitur to conclude that anything done in the name of preventing something similar or finding those responsible is justifiable. For example, the US could nuke every country on the face of the earth except ours – that would definitely prevent another 9/11 and kill the perpetrators – but that doesn’t make such an action “ok”. So if we rightly repudiate the notion of killing billions of innocents to punish the guilty, we should also repudiate the killing (or torture) of even one innocent. It’s not worth it. Why? Well ask yourself how you would feel about that proposition if you were the one innocent person. Not so gung ho now.
Did the CIA likely have some really bad people in custody? Yes. But they also (based on the report data) had a lot of totally innocent people as well. The reason we don’t (or shouldn’t) engage in torture is the same reason we have an innocent until proven guilty court system; it is not out of concern for the guilty, but rather concern for the innocent. This protects you and me from being thrown in prison or tortured on the mere word or hunch of somebody; “so you say Jane’s a witch (terrorist) do you? Well that’s all the information I need, let’s go kill her.”
Should the suspected terrorists have a trial? Yes, every last one in custody. Otherwise how can anyone know if they are actually terrorists? If there is proof, then there should be no problem getting a conviction. But, if you subscribe to the notion that we won’t always have concrete proof, that sometimes we just have to go on conjecture, hearsay, or hunches, then here’s hoping you never end up in a prison of a like-minded country.