Passion for Justice

Take 5

5 Questions for an Expert: CIA and Torture

Rebecca Gordon teaches philosophy at USF and is the author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. Her new book, American Nuremberg, will be published this fall by Skybooks/Hotbooks.

We asked her the following questions after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released parts of its report on CIA interrogation methods in December 2014.

1. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Americans started rethinking their position on the use of torture. Doesn’t the extreme nature of 9/11 help justify its use?

Institutionalized state torture remains as wrong today as it was on the day before those terrible attacks. It is a moral abomination, because of what it does to the victim, and because of how it deforms the society—especially a democratic society—that gives it a home.

My working title for the book was actually A Nation of Cowards, but the publisher (probably wisely) thought that was a bit over the top. Still, we have a word in English for people who will permit anything at all to be done to ensure their own safety. We call those people “cowards.”

Sadly, our country’s response to Sept. 11 was not a sudden, isolated reaction to an extreme event. It was part of an ongoing, historically and socially embedded practice, a history that includes supporting torture regimes abroad and the use of torture in the so-called War on Terror, in which detainees have been beaten, raped, forced to ingest food or water through their rectums, waterboarded repeatedly, denied access to a toilet, and deprived of sleep and human contact, all in an attempt to break their bodies and spirits.

2. Is torture legal?

Any form of torture is illegal under U.S. and international law.

This is true, no matter what real or imagined emergency may exist. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. signed in 1994, states clearly that the fear of an attack is no excuse for torture. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

People will always make excuses for torture, especially when they feel threatened or when they are attacked, but there is no legitimate or legal excuse for it.

3. Terrorists don’t play by the rules. Why should we?

The long-term interests of the U.S. demand that it be governed by law, not by fear, and by human values, not by terror. We have passed laws against torture and signed treaties saying we won’t perform it. The use of torture undermines U.S. credibility and legitimacy, but it offers no benefit in return, no additional “intelligence,” and no greater security. Far from increasing our safety, the use of torture provides recruiting material for terrorists.

4. Doesn’t torture provide at least some useful information?

No. And even if it did, it would still be wrong.

I do not believe torture produces any useful information, and that is the same conclusion the Senate subcommittee came to in its report on CIA interrogation methods. What torture does produce is a tangled mess of truths, half-truths, lies, wild invention and confabulation, psychotic ravings, and desperate attempts to say whatever the victim thinks the torturers want to hear.

5. What’s the significance of the CIA report?

Getting even this partial and redacted report into public view is a real victory for everyone who hopes to end state torture. I believe it will be a catalyst for change, but it’s just the beginning of the fight.

We need similar reports on the whole alphabet soup of U.S. agencies involved in the “war on terror.”

There must be a full accounting of these crimes, and real accountability for those responsible. We must also rein in the CIA, which remains remarkably committed to the practice of torture, and we must end the use of torture in American jails and prisons.

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