“The harsh interrogations of al-Qaeda detainees: Was it ‘torture’ and did it help find bin Laden?” That is an interrogatory headline in the Washington Post. I haven’t read the article. I almost can’t stand to read the mainstream press anymore, or any press for that matter. This question, coming nearly fifteen years after the U. S. government was caught torturing people all over the world, sounds just as abhorrent now as it did when people first asked it.

When Bush’s torture regime first came to light, the first thing he did was deny it. “That’s not who we are, as Americans.” Photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib put an end to that particular lie soon enough. Bush’s next line was that treatment of prisoners in the photographs was an aberration: “That’s not who we are, as Americans.” Then it turns out that mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was mild compared with techniques use at torture sites all over the world. Why did the CIA call them ‘black sites’? Because they thought nobody could see them!

What did Bush say when his worldwide torture regime stood exposed, easily visible to allies and enemies alike? He needed a new lie, now. “That’s not who we are…” had worn thin at this point. His main move was to delegate defense of torture to Cheney, or anyone else so morally ignorant they would insist torture yields valuable intelligence. If these techniques helped us find bin Laden, how can you object to them? Never mind that the U. S. tortured hundreds of people, who had nothing to do with bin Laden, who simply fell into the CIA’s hands at the wrong time. Cheney and his fellow thugs wanted to torture anyone who might help us out, on the off chance they would tell the torturer something valuable.

The real motive that fed the torture regime was revenge. When you have a prisoner with an Arab name right in front of you, who cares what they know? You have to ask why so many prisoners died, if they supposedly possessed valuable information. After they prove they cannot help you, you can off them anytime you like. You can’t release them, and you can’t keep them around for life. So hang them on a wall until they can’t breathe anymore. That way you don’t even have to be on hand when they expire.

So far, we have addressed the ‘Did it help find bin Laden?’ part of the question. That’s the pragmatic argument: you have to make some compromises to obtain valuable information. The definitional argument – ‘Was it torture?’ – is even weaker. Note the Post headline places the word torture between single quotes. Why do you suppose? If you lead with ‘harsh interrogations’ and end with ‘did it help find bin Laden?’, I think you have your answer. The headline writer understands why people ask the question, but does not actually care to think about it that much.

If hanging people from walls seems like an ambiguous case to you, let’s take the most famous technique from that era: the waterboard. Like thumbscrews, racks, branding irons, knives, nails, ropes, truncheons, or any other tool designed to torment people in your control, if you have to ask whether mock drowning on a waterboard counts, you don’t grasp why torture is torture. If you don’t understand that, why ask the question? People in Bush’s Justice Department tried to explain, in legal language, why torture was not torture, but abstruseness never wins an argument. If you try to contradict the plain meaning of a word, your argument always fails.

What would happen then if we placed torture on the same plane as hard-core pornography, and say, with Justice Potter Stewart, ‘I know it when I see it’? Would that relieve us of trying to figure out where harsh interrogation shades into torture? Suppose you slap your prisoner around a little bit. Does that count as torture? Suppose the treatment gradually becomes more and more severe. How do you know when you have crossed into torture territory? The Bush administration’s Justice Department tried to answer a question of scale. If they had not cared to protect themselves from condemnation, they might have saved themselves the trouble. “I know it when I see it” is the standard everyone else was going to use, and did use.

So we need not ask whether certain techniques count as torture, or whether information prisoners give up justifies anything their jailers might do to them. All of these apparently thorny questions have a simple response: Don’t do it. Don’t torture people. Suppose we make this question of permissible and impermissible treatment as subjective as we can. Ask prisoners whether or not their jailers or interrogators have tortured them. If they believe their treatment counts as torture, stop it.

If prisoners actually do have valuable information, a skilled interrogator can obtain it without harsh techniques. Skilled interrogators do not exact revenge. They do not even need to make threats.

Related article

This article takes a fact checker approach, and appears more balanced than I suggest in the opening paragraph.

The harsh interrogations of al-Qaeda detainees: Was it ‘torture’ and did it help find bin Laden?