The debate over the use of torture has generated a significant amount of soul-searching within American society. Some people argue that it can be justified in extreme circumstances. For example, these people contend that torture might be acceptable if a terrorist attack is imminent and information regarding the attack needs to be quickly obtained from uncooperative prisoners. Some, like Trump, think that torture should be standard practice because terrorists just “deserve it.” The majority of people, however, believe that torture is never justified under any circumstances. They are right.
Torture is massively deleterious to American interests for a number of reasons. First, it offers terrorists an incredibly effective recruiting tool. Abuse of prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay signals to many that America’s commitment to justice and the rule of law is entirely superficial. This undercuts America’s image of moral purity by demonstrating that when it comes to enemy combatants, the U.S. is not all that different from Saddam or Assad. Of course, the U.S. is not like the strongmen that it is fighting. Abuses committed by Americans pale in comparison to the mass atrocities committed by authoritarian despots in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it is easy for disenchanted Arabs to believe that the so-called American liberators are no different from the tyrants they replaced because the U.S. has committed terrible crimes against prisoners in its custody. This view of the U.S. being no different from a typical authoritarian dictatorship allows terrorists to recruit individuals who otherwise wouldn’t be willing to take up arms against the West. Indeed, when asked why they joined terrorist groups, a large number of terrorists cited American abuses in Abu Ghraib as the primary reason for them fighting against the U.S.
Torture also hurts American interests by damaging relations with allies. Regardless of how Americans view torture, it is deemed to be barbaric by the vast majority of American allies. Thus, when American abuses were revealed, allies ranging from Ireland to Germany were less likely to cooperate with the American military. Indeed, a recent Foreign Affairs essay reveals that “the British army had captured an enemy combatant in Basra, Iraq, but released him because it did not have adequate detention facilities and did not trust U.S. or Iraqi forces to treat him humanely (aiding and abetting torture is a crime under British law).” The essay also reveals that in 2003, Dutch politicians refused to provide military support in Afghanistan because they worried that they would be voted out of office by citizens concerned that their government was abetting torture. Thus, it is clear that the use of torture erodes America’s military advantage by straining alliance relationships and making countries wary of supporting the U.S. Even if torture does provide valuable intelligence, then, it still undermines American military effectiveness by essentially turning the U.S. into a pariah state.
It is also far from clear that torture even works. In the Senate report on torture, it was revealed that while the CIA did glean some important information from torture, there was no evidence suggesting that the use of torture was necessary for the acquisition of crucial intelligence. In other words, the CIA could not prove that torture was necessary for intelligence acquisition. This is telling because the CIA – the agency most tied to the use of torture – had every incentive to justify their use of inhumane practices. That even they were not able to offer a compelling case for the use of torture methods suggests that there is no evidence supporting the efficacy of torture as a tool of intelligence gathering.
It is easy to lose one’s sense of perspective when facing a concerning threat. People were worried after 9/11, and it’s not difficult to see why some were willing to take extreme measures to protect the homeland. However, fear and insecurity do not make torture acceptable. We rightly decry Nazi and Imperial Japanese abuses against POWs and civilian non-combatants because we all know that those actions were wrong and unjust. Indeed, their gratuitous abuse of enemy combatants and civilians is the primary reason that regimes like Nazi Germany are viewed in such a negative light. The U.S. can never resort to torture because if it does, it will not be any different than the barbaric monsters it fights against. There is absolutely no moral justification for torture, and, as this post has explained, neither is there a strategic or pragmatic justification for torture. In short, torture is evil, ineffective, and actively harms U.S. interests. It should never be used again.