Discussions of the morality of torture have a bad habit of descending into a common game-theory scenario derived from the "Trolley Problem." It goes like this: imagine that your entire family was locked in a building that was going to blow up in ten minutes. You don’t know where the bomb is, but you have the person who placed it in custody. Would you torture the person in order to save your family?
This is actually an interesting ethical problem—fun in the way that a crossword puzzle is fun and just as useless in serious policy discussions. Abstract thought experiments like this are designed to filter out all of the possible variables of a situation and reduce it to two clear-cut options: either a) engage in torture, or b) your whole family dies. Situations like this do not occur in nature. They filter out everything that actually matters.
One of the things that this problem filters out is the question of effectiveness. Does torture actually produce good information? One need not ask this question in the game scenario, since its parameters assume that nine minutes of torture will produce the exact location of the bomb. In an ethics-class problem, nothing can get in the way of the clear-cut moral choice.
Even more importantly, though, games like this occur in a universe completely devoid of contexts—a universe that is therefore nothing like our own. The kinds of torture described by the recent Senate Intelligence Committee Report are not isolated acts to solve immediate problems. They are part of a much broader conflict. And even if acts of torture do solve short-term problems (and there is very little evidence that they do even this), these tactical gains must be weighed against the enormous strategic losses they cause us to incur.
Presumably, the objective of torturing prisoners is to “win” something called “the war on terror." But here’s the problem: the only way to win such a war is to stop doing things like torturing prisoners.
When we represent torture as a regrettable-but-necessary aspect of the “war on terror,” we badly mischaracterize the nature of that conflict. We are not involved in military operations against a place called “Terrorism.” There are no cities to bomb, no beaches to storm, and no supreme leader whose surrender will bring about the transition to peace. Almost nothing in this conflict will be decided by military force.
We are involved in an ideological competition with a form of radical Islam that has embraced terrorism as a rhetorical tool. The grounds of this conflict are the hearts and minds of the billion Muslims in the world who are not terrorists. And the only way to win is to convince them that our system is better than what the terrorists have to offer.
When we break our own rules to engage in torture, we blur the moral distinctions between us and the terrorists. When we kill innocent people indiscriminately with drones, or abuse detainees in our prisons, or level villages with our bombs, we convince people that they are no safer with us than with ISIS and Al Qaeda. When we fill our airwaves and bandwidths with anti-Muslim rants, we send very clear messages of exclusion to very people that we are trying to convince to side with us. This is how you lose a war on terror.
The good news is that, to win, we need only to be our best selves. The things that we bring to the table—respect for human rights, dignity, compassion, and the rule of law—are the things that most people want. They are the values that millions of people in the Arab world have so recently fought for and demonstrated to achieve. We cannot afford to treat as casualties of a phony war the very principles through which we might someday win the real one.