MONEY TALKS - Torture may be necessary for some, but it's still evil

Last Friday, the Reflector ran an editorial opposing the U.S. policy on torture. Online, a commenter using the name Bill Beier wrote:
Jul 25, 2010


Last Friday, the Reflector ran an editorial opposing the U.S. policy on torture.

Online, a commenter using the name Bill Beier wrote:

"I agree with most of what you have said, but as a Vietnam veteran interrogator I have come to believe that the methods used are not exactly pleasant but necessary to get results that could save American lives and bring an end to the war. I believe the average citizen cannot judge without being familiar with the situation or having been there. I would not wish that on anyone but do wish our commander-in-chief would be just that and not a politician. Did we not learn that one already? Well, before I get too wordy I will end it with let the situation be the judge and not those who have no experience."

As a member of the editorial board, I helped draft the opinion Mr. Beier was responding to. As the interactive media editor, it is my job to oversee the comments online. In both those roles, I was gratified by the comment.

We were arguing that torture must be completely outlawed by the United States government. Mr. Beier seemed to be agreeing with us in general, but not in particular. The way I read his comment, he was essentially saying, yes, torture is wrong, but in some certain circumstances, an interrogator needs to do what an interrogator needs to do.

Before I go any further, I would like to point out that this kind of comment is exactly why we have decided to offer commenting online. Mr. Beier's statement is both well thought out and thought provoking. It disagrees on a very contentious issue, but it does so productively and respectfully.

Beyond that, Mr. Beier's point is well taken. I don't know if this is what he's getting at, but here's what his comment made me realize.

To me, Mr. Beier's argument is that torture might, in some circumstances be necessary. To me, that does not prove that we should legalize torture. Just because something is illegal, that doesn't mean it's never going to happen.

As a nation, we need to make sure torture is illegal. The torture issue is about who we are as a people. Yes, someone who's bombed the innocent may indeed deserve what he gets, but we, as a nation, have always chosen to prioritize protecting the innocent over punishing the guilty.

More importantly, the issue is not about whether anyone deserves it, but about what we have to become to start wielding it as a weapon.

It's also about the fact that in the real world, torture creates mostly bad intelligence.

But also in the real world, I'm willing to believe that every once in a while, in some circumstances, with some particular subject, torture might be the only answer.

In that instance, it should be up to the interrogator who's there, who knows the situation, who has experience, to make that decision. It shouldn't be made by me, sitting in a newsroom in Ohio, and it shouldn't be made by the president of the United States in Washington.

And in those circumstances, it had better be a pretty tough decision for the interrogator. That's why torture must be illegal.

If an interrogator believes that the information is so important and that torture is so likely to get it that he is willing to risk going to jail for the rest of his life to save the lives of the innocent, he can still do that.

If he's right, it's actually somewhat unlikely a jury will convict but he better be right.

On the other hand, if the threshold on that decision is any lower, it immediately gets abused. You let in any wiggle room, and you get Abu Ghraib.

The administration should never have made this a national issue. Really, the above is exactly the policy we pursued for decades before Sept. 11. And it's not like we haven't faced other threats. The administration needs to loudly repudiate all "enhanced interrogation techniques" and it needs to shut down Guantanamo Bay. Then everyone needs to have the sense to drop it and leave it to "the situation to judge and not those who have no experience."


JEF (Anonymous)

Mr. White, I can appreciate your sense of abstract idealism, but on a personal level if you reasonably believed that your family was in danger for their lives, would torturing a suspect for information that could potentially save them be a viable option?

Nicholas White ...

JEF: I must beg to differ. I believe the argument I have presented is entirely practical, rather than abstract in nature. It's not as much about general notions of right and wrong as it is about producing human behavior that is reasonably and practicably ethical. As far as whether I would want someone tortured if my own family were involved -- I very well might. Which is exactly why we have laws. In that situation, my judgment is impaired. I am the last person who should be deciding the question at that point.

JEF (Anonymous)

Mr. White, do you know with 100% metaphysical certainty that no American lives have been saved by the information gleaned from the terrorists through the use of torture or other 'unethical' methods? BTW, in that hypothetical situation and 'my' family were in deadly danger - I'd be 'goin' medieval on the suspect's posterior.' An old saying worth repeating: Better to judged by twelve than carried by six.

Nicholas White ...

JEF, Obviously I do not know with '100% metaphysical certainty' that such methods have not saved lives. But I fail to see how that's relevant. There are plenty of things we could do that would have 100% certainty of putting an end to terrorism in the Middle East, but that doesn't mean we should do them. And, of course, anyone would go 'Medieval' to save one's family, which is why society hasn't let family members decide punishment for those convicted, much less treatment of those merely suspected, since the medieval period. Now here's a question, Do you know with 100% certainty that you will never be suspected of committing acts of terrorism?