by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
A draft of a new executive order that would re-open CIA black site prisons (facilities outside the United States where more torturous forms of interrogation are not prohibited) and restart the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (which many consider to be torture) was made public on Wednesday. Trump also publicly stated that he believes torture works and thus thinks it should be reinstated.
Trump’s justification for torture is that without it “we’re not playing on an even field.” He said that since terrorists will torture people, we need to be able to do the same. Mr. Trump, two wrongs do not make a right.
Simply, torture is wrong. It is a willful infliction of harm on another human being, which violates notions of nonmaleficence. It also breaches a person’s dignity and autonomy. Torture defies Kant’s principle of humanity since torture victims are treated merely as means to achieving the end of learning information.
Legally, torture contravenes the Geneva Convention and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, some might argue that these detainees are not prisoners of war and thus are not covered. And the US is about to abandon the UN anyway (also look here). The International Criminal Court defines torture as a crime against humanity (the US is not a member of the Court). When you capture and detain people against their will and their government’s assent, and deny them basic rights of anyone living inside your own borders, that person is in fact your prisoner. And a prisoner deserves protection under international law.
In addition, the CIA in its own 2014 report found that “enhanced interrogation,” which includes such techniques as waterboarding, does not work. Torture produces no information that was not learned through other, more humane techniques. Under torture, people will say most anything that you want them to. Often what they report turns out not to be false because the statement was influenced by what the torturer wanted said. Retired General Mattis said he could learn more by treating someone humanely (giving them smokes and a beer) than through waterboarding. Trump’s new CIA chief stated during his confirmation hearings that he would not use torture.
The argument that if they do it, then so should we is a logical fallacy. The United States has stood as a symbol of freedom and justice for much of the world. We are supposed to be aspirational; a nation built on ethics of individual freedom and liberty that inspires the world. Getting down in the mud is not the way to be a symbol of freedom nor is it a way to serve as a model of democracy for other nations. Of course, the Economic Intelligence Unit downgraded our government system to the level of a “flawed democracy” even before Trump took office. This branch of The Economist states that democracy in the developed world is under threat today.
Our place as a nation of values, hope and aspiration is at risk. When we tortured before, we violated our principles and virtues, and to start again would be worse than the first time around, since it would mean that we learned nothing from our mistakes. Torture is wrong legally, ethically, and morally.