Several times during my criticism of the national government, I’ve mentioned torture as the key reason the government has lost its legitimacy. When a government tortures, it breaks the bond that exists between citizens and the institutions they authorize to act on their behalf. Governments naturally make mistakes, misbehave, or undertake illegal activities, but torture by itself is sufficient to make the entire government illegal. When it tortures people, government dissolves its own authority, to use John Locke’s pertinent phrase. That is the case even if it has done nothing else wrong.

Let’s consider why torture amounts to a capital crime for government. A government that commits torture deserves not only contempt but abolishment. The first reason is simple and tautological: it’s a crime because it’s illegal. We want to remember though that torture isn’t wrong because it’s illegal; it’s illegal because it’s wrong. In its typically legalistic way, the Justice Department set out to show that the particular techniques we wanted to use did not fall within the legal definition of torture. Jay Bybee’s torture memo carefully explained the definition, and argued with even more care why a given interrogation technique didn’t count as torture as long as you didn’t do this or that. Legal definitions only matter, though, if you want to convict someone at trial. They don’t tell you if something is wrong.

So with Bybee’s torture memo in hand, the United States government eagerly undertook an international program of torture against supposed terrorists it had detained. It essentially said, “Now that we have you, we’re going to find out if you’re a terrorist. To find out, we’re going to use interrogation techniques that force you to confess. After you have confessed, we will torture you some more for the sake of revenge, deterrence and intimidation. You and your friends will learn that we don’t mess around with our enemies.”

That message contains the hard kernel of immorality in torture. Torture is a means of control. Cheney, Scalia, and numerous others at Justice and the CIA said we had to use these techniques to obtain valuable information. They showed again that you can convince yourself of anything to justify yourself, even if you have decided to commit an enormous crime. The true reason for torture is to control people. The effects of torture – pain, punishment, intimidation, compliance – all flow from that central motive.

When an institution with authority and power uses torture to control people, it makes a clear statement: we have tortured this person, and we can treat you the same way. We tortured this person because he is an enemy of the state. If we perceive you as an enemy of the state, you will receive the same treatment.

If you think the United States reserves its harsh treatment for people from other countries, think again. The prisoners at Guantanamo receive better treatment than Bradley Manning, a member of our armed forces imprisoned at Leavenworth. Without saying so, the United States government has declared Bradley Manning an enemy of the state. It demonstrates each day how it treats people it has placed in that category. It says this treatment is necessary for Manning’s own protection. How evil is that?

A government that feels itself under threat exerts every means of control at its disposal. It uses assassination, imprisonment and torture to protect itself. The United States government has demonstrated its willingness to use all three. It uses these methods on a few people because it cannot practically apply them to everyone. It relies on fear and intimidation to control everyone else.

Let’s take a simple case. Suppose the FBI reads your blog posts and comes to your door to ask some questions. It has happened. Should you answer the door? No one wants to be interrogated, placed in solitary confinement, drugged, or hounded to death on suspicion of being an enemy of the state. No one wants to be deprived of sleep until he or she breaks, or forced to sit in a compliance position inside a small wooden box. It doesn’t matter whether or not the FBI actually plans to use these methods in a particular case. It has placed fear of ill treatment inside citizens’ minds. After it has used torture, its job is done. Who would want to open the door to an organization that has demonstrated its willingness to use torture?

A person of notoriety who is tortured to death sets an example of courage that lasts for centuries. Witness Jesus. An everyday citizen who declines to be tortured anonymously just makes a prudent decision. In anonymous cases the government just eliminates another opponent, and no one remembers. Think of all the nameless people executed in Iran, China, Libya, North Korea, Congo, Sudan, Syria, or Myanmar – we have no shortage of so-called authoritarian regimes that use these techniques. Whether its victims are notorious or anonymous, a government that uses torture and other forms of mistreatment to protect itself is both cowardly and evil.

So when people ask me, “Why do you oppose our government so?”, I say, “Let’s start with torture.” I don’t need to say more: the indictment ends there. Torture and other mistreatment of people are government’s cardinal methods of control. No government that uses them is legitimate. Every government that uses these methods must be replaced. Citizens must protect themselves.


First published in The Jeffersonian March 11, 2011. Why Torture Matters concludes Revolution on the Ground by Steven Greffenius. The book argues for radical change in our country’s governance. Preview Revolution on the Ground at Amazon or Smashwords. Please enter your comments below!