The Unholy Myth That Torture ‘Works’ [Thanks to Sally for this post.]

Professor, Chicago Theological Seminary

Susan Brooks Thislethwaite

The torture apologists are at it again, trying to perpetuate the unholy untruth that “interrogation of high-value targets” (torture) helped “give us victory” and thus yet again try to insinuate that it is justified. It doesn’t work, it didn’t help us one wit in getting bin Laden, and it is never justified. We cannot let torture apologists get any traction again on this corrupt myth.

But they are trying. Liz Cheney and others at the Keep America Safe Foundation got out a quick statement following President Obama’s announcement of the successful operation against Osama bin Laden. The balance of their argument is that this “victory” was due in larger part to our “intelligence services who, through their interrogation of high-value detainees, developed the information that apparently led us to bin Laden.” President Obama’s leadership in this daring effort against terrorism isn’t even mentioned.

How quickly they come back out of the woodwork, the torture apologists. Jane Mayer, the author of The Dark Side: How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals has said, “It may have taken nearly a decade to find and kill Osama bin Laden, but it took less than twenty-four hours for torture apologists to claim credit for his downfall,” citing the Keep American Safe Foundation statement.

Much has been made of ”getting the courier’s name” fromKhalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), for example, said earlier this week that we obtained information “about the courier…obtained that information through waterboarding…vital information which directly led us to bin Laden.” In fact, as experts have noted, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not reveal the courier’s name that led the U.S. to bin Laden under torture. He gave up those names many months later under standard interrogation.

This has led expert interrogators like Andrew Alexander to conclude that far from “waterboarding” making “a difference,” the reverse is true. It slowed down the actual getting of useful information. Getting the name of a courier, said Alexander, “happened a year after he was waterboarded, which tells me from my experience that I saw in Iraq, that the waterboarding actually slowed down the acquisition of intelligence by a year.” Alexander has rebuked another Cheney, Dick Cheney, for these kinds of arguments on interrogation, and counters that torture doesn’t work.

Furthermore, we cannot allow the use of the term “interrogation” or “enhanced interrogation techniques” to be used to mean the use of torture such as waterboarding. No less an expert than Senator John McCain has said simply, “waterboarding is torture.” As recently as 2009, McCain has said that that the U.S., under Bush, violated the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Torture, according to McCain, “is wrong, counterproductive and doesn’t work.”

He, more than most Americans, should know.

Torture is wrong, it is always wrong and it can never be justified. Every major world religion and civilized nation condemns torture and forbids it. But some of the clearest public condemnation comes from those who have seen what torture does, not only to the tortured but also to the torturer. Daniel Coleman, an ex-FBI agent who worked closely with the CIA and argued in vain for traditional methods of interrogation, knows this deeper truth. It amounts to soul murder. “Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.” (Mayer, 118-119)

I argue that the nation that authorizes torture, and collaborates in the fiction that this is just “enhanced interrogation” loses its soul. I contend that what is “wrong” with torture is that it is purely designed to inflict pain. Torture cannot be justified as a way to interrogate people to find out the truth. The tortured will say anything to make the torture stop. That’s why torture and interrogation can have no true relationship. The only reality is to cause pain.

Torture is revenge. It comes from a power so unsure of itself that it can only lash out, not in investigation, but in revenge. And as many have written for On Faith this week, revenge is not faithful or moral.

And if all that doesn’t convince the Cheney family, father and daughter, try Ethics 101. The ends do not justify the means.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

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