Does Torture Work? It Doesn’t Matter


Now that Osama bin Laden has been found and killed, people from the former administration of George W. Bush are claiming their methods of interrogation by torture (a word they avoid) worked and helped provide valuable information. People who know about effective interrogation are countering these claims, giving the impression that even if some valuable information was gained while water-boarding certain captives, that exception to the rule would fail to establish the value of torture because it has been demonstrated to be ineffective and other methods of interrogation produce better results.

While I’m thankful these experts in interrogation are speaking out to counter the self-defensive claims of former Bush administration people, the more profound matter is not that of effectiveness. Torture is evil, and evil cannot be justified by any claim to effectiveness. It seems we have yet to realize what we do when we command our young men and women to torture people, even the worst of our enemies. We break their souls – that is, their very selves. By “soul” I mean, not some immortal entity somehow encapsulated within mortal flesh, but the essential self of the person. In biblical and theological terms, the soul is the person in the deepest sense, the person created by God to have life that is responsive to God’s love and justice.

The person who tortures others must be broken by what s/he has done or become callous to it or come to enjoy it. Any of those three outcomes reveals a broken soul, although the first is probably the best of a horrible lot because the torturer is still able to suffer from the wrongness of what he or she is doing. Look at what happened to our own young people at Abu Ghraib. Look at how debased they became. Then, there is the horror of what torture does to its victims. Consider the Canadian man subjected to “extreme rendition” and broken by it.

A nation that makes torture a policy, an affirmed action to be carried out by its representatives in pursuit of any goal whatsoever, breaks its own national soul. Such a nation crosses over into radical evil and can no longer rightly claim any moral or other virtue for its national life.

The favorite appeal of the pro-torture people is to the ticking bomb scenario. What would you do if the only way you could prevent the bomb from exploding and killing hundreds or thousands of people was to get information from a person who was refusing to give it to you? Would you not resort to torture? The scenario is generally a ruse exploited to justify policies of torture to be put into routine practice when there is no ticking bomb whatsoever, but let’s take it seriously for a moment. Suppose one does go to the extreme in hope of saving many lives. Suppose one takes it upon himself or herself to torture the captive for the crucial information. Whether that extreme action succeeds or fails at preventing a mass killing, the person who tortures has decided the situation required the desperate move of breaking the law, in which case torture remains outside the law and the person accepts the consequences of having broken the law. If I decide the urgency of an extreme situation makes it necessary that I break so vital a law, am I not thereby deciding it is also necessary for me to accept the consequences? That’s a terrible decision to have to make, but in no way does it justify changing the law itself. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the agonized decision to participate in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, but he certainly did not lobby for worldwide acceptance of assassination as a policy.

If we decide that expediency in pursuit of our interests justifies all actions we believe might prove effective, then we have decided, consciously or unconsciously, that we matter and other people do not, that we are somehow more human than others. When that happens, we invariably sacrifice our own humanity on the altar of our egotism, and we become less human, not more.

I am thankful for the people who are countering the self-serving claims to justification for torture. We need to go further and see what torture really does to its victims, to the torturers themselves, and to the nation that decides its own security and self-interest rise above all ethical, moral, and religious standards so that it may do whatever it pleases in pursuit of whatever it decides works to its own benefit.

To torture, we first dehumanize the person who is to be our victim, but we tend to go even further and dehumanize and perhaps demonize some group to which the person belongs or is presumed to belong. In this way, we cover ourselves in case the victim of our torture turns out to be innocent; it doesn’t matter (to us) because the victim is still a member of that group we have dehumanized. So, torture becomes an extreme expression of prejudice, in which we see ourselves as the people who matter, and our will becomes the measure of good and evil, which is the biblical understanding of the condition we call sin.

Was valuable information gained by torture? It does not matter. What matters is that we move decisively to make sure torture is removed as an option in our national policies. Permanently.