A while ago, the Main Squeeze and I had dinner with an old friend, and that topic came up. I took the position then, as I have here, that torture is bad, and that it ought to be rejected as a tactic in the Global War on Terror. My friend -- a decent, humane guy, an old-fashioned Church-going Catholic -- expressed some disagreement. Referring to his children, he said "I would be inclined to agree with you were it not for the fact that really bad people want very badly to hurt my two kids." He admitted that torture was brutal, and that it inflicted suffering. But then, so too does war, and war is sometimes necessary as well. I understand his desire to protect his children, friends, family, loved ones, and fellow Americans from harm, but he's dead wrong about the desirability of torture.
To begin with, I'm not convinced that torture is actually likely to be an effective way of extracting information. Bill O'Reilly (via Balloon Juice and Flopping Aces) thinks it does, because, well, the torturers told him it did:
Both former CIA chief George Tenet and former CIA official Michael Scheuer, once the head of the bin Laden unit, told me that coerced interrogation methods often provided accurate intelligence that potentially saved thousands of lives.
Well, there you have it. It works -- case closed.
Seriously, of course George Tenet says "enhanced interrogation" works. He was the guy in charge at the CIA when a lot of this stuff was goig on. Of course he wants to claim that it was necessary, that it saved lives. In order to really evaluate his claim, a disinterested observer would have to have full access to all of the Super Top Secret burn-before-reading files and see what was gleaned. Unitl that happens, Tenet is saying "trust me." Has George Tenet done anything to earn that trust?
Publicly-available information does not suggest that torture or "enhanced interrogation" is particularly effective. At least one government study by the Intelligence Science Board found that there's no scientific evidence that torture works. Anecdotal evidence suggests that less coercive methods can be very effective indeed. A recent report of the reunion of World War II veterans of a unit known then as "P.O. Box 1142" has caused a bit of stir. The members of that unit extracted information from people, and they did it without torturing them. Likewise, this Anne Applebaum column from 2005 notes that the French used torture in their (losing) war in Algeria, and there's no real evidence it actually, you know, worked. She also quote quite a few past and present interrogators who concluded that harsh methods aren't all that effective. I'm sorry, but I trust these guys over George Tenet.
But let's suppose that it turns out that torture or "enhanced interrogation" really is effective, at least when done properly in some cases. It's still a bad idea. Glen Greenwald is right when he points out that small-government conservatives are often inconsistent with their own stated values when they support expansion of state power in the War on Terror.
Terrorists are indeed bad people intent on hurting us. But there are limits on what terrorists can do. They succeeded in killing several thousand Americans on September 11, 2001, and it's possible they will launch another attack that will be equally murderous. Even so, there is a reason why they had to use hijacked airliners rather than their own. At the end of the day, terrorism is a technique used by groups that are fundamentally weak. It is tragic for the people who are killed and their loved ones, but it's not an existential threat.
There is, by contrast, no limit to the amount of damage that can be done by an oppressive government. Murder by millions. Industrial scale torture. Seizure of property. Imprisonment without a fair hearing.
I don't want the government to have the power to torture people for one simple reason: I don't want to the government to have the power to torture people. I am, reluctantly, forced to admit that we need to have some government, but there is ample reason to not trust the government or its agents to not abuse their power. If the 20th Century taught any lesson at all, it ought to be that you don't want to live under a government where the agents of the state are given the power to torture people. Conservatives ought to understand that, and before President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney took office, they did.