Torture Is Wrong: Once You Accept this, Most of the Talking Points Don’t Matter

“Once there are things you refuse to do, you have things to do.”–Mencius


Torture is wrong. I don’t intend to try to prove this by a lengthy process of ethical deduction or by appealing to sacred texts or philosophical authorities. Being part of a body politic means accepting some political and ethical norms as starting points for political discussion. In any society that I would ever want to live in, one of these norms is “don’t torture people.”

The requirement for due process does not attach to the individual, but to the state, regardless of the citizenship of the accused.
Michael Austin
Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 528-page report documenting what must now be called an incontrovertible fact: the government of the United States tortured people. Definitional wrangling doesn’t matter any more. Wherever one chooses to place the “torture” line, we crossed it, and that matters.

It matters because we broke our own rules by engaging in torture and violated our own Constitution by subjecting people to punishment without due process of law. It does not matter whether or not the people tortured were citizens. The requirement for due process does not attach to the individual, but to the state, regardless of the citizenship of the accused.

But politics being what they are, we are about to start having a lot of conversations about stuff that doesn’t matter—or, at least, stuff that only matters to those who are on the fence about the morality of torture. Once one accepts the idea that torture is simply wrong, most of these arguments will become nothing more than distractions. Here are a few of them:

It does not matter where it occurred. The logic behind the Guantanamo Bay facility is just legal hair-splitting: since it is not on US soil, the argument goes, prisoners are not entitled to due process. And since it is not in a combat zone, they are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture. But this is a legal technicality with no moral force. If torture is wrong, it is wrong wherever one chooses to do it.

It does not matter that the release of the report was politically motivated. Of course the release of the report was politically motivated. Everything that happens in politics is politically motivated. Of course Democrats wanted to embarrass Republicans one last time before the Senate switched hands. Of course it was timed for maximum political impact. But that doesn’t make torture right, nor does it justify continuing to hide from us that which was done in our name. The great culpability of Senate Democrats lies in not getting this information out ten years ago when it might have mattered more.

It does not matter whether or not the torture was effective. This has already become the major response of those like Dick Cheney, who supervised both the torturing and the lying-about-it afterwards. And there is plenty in the report to dispute the claim that anything at all was gained by the torture. But it doesn’t matter. Even if we did get good information from torturing people, it was still wrong to do it. We do not avoid torture because it is ineffective; we avoid torture because it is wrong—just as we avoid conducting medical experiments on people without their permission because it is wrong. No amount of good information—be it military or medical—justifies doing that which is inherently immoral.

It does not matter whether those we tortured were good people. We do not refuse to use torture because the people we would subject to it are good. We refuse to use torture because we are good. Or at least we like to think that we are the good guys. But when our actions become indistinguishable from those we are supposedly trying to save the world from, we cease to be good and we simply become powerful.

And when we cease to be powerful, we will still have to live in the world that we helped to create. After today’s report on torture, this is not a comforting thought.