REPRISE: Consorting with the Devil? The Debate over the Efficacy of Torture

Given the renewed debate in the U.S over the efficacy of torture in the wake of Bin Laden’s death, the article republished below, written on April 24, 2009 and first published here on October 1, 2009, puts current arguments in perspective.

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CONSORTING WITH THE DEVIL? THE DEBATE OVER THE EFFICACY OF TORTURE

April 24, 2009–The current debate over whether the use of torture by the Bush administration produced valuable information throws into sharp relief the moral depths to which the United States has sunk–from leading politicians and policymakers to large portions of the press and millions of average citizens. One cannot but wonder whether the rampant corruption in the mortgage market, in stock analysts’ recommendations, and in financial behavior which has brought this country to a new nadir, might not be related to a general lack of ethical and spiritual moorings in broad swathes of the population.

Painfully few religious, business or other leaders have taken continued, strong public stands against our use of torture. With notable exceptions, journalists even today shrink from describing so-called “harsh interrogation techniques” including water boarding as “torture”. Fear of litigation should not completely muzzle the press. The lack of awareness of history reflected in news reports and analyses and debates among officials is astounding, and suggests that the education of even many of our most educated public servants and journalists has a glaring gap at its moral core. That is, even with the best educations at the best universities, this ethical gap and lack of a moral core has not been remedied.

The principle of due obedience, rejected at Nuremberg and accepted but only for a while in Argentina, is quietly accepted without reference to either of those precedents. Or to the facts and considerations that led to the adoption and ratification of the torture convention.

To a nation which cheered episodes of “24” depicting torture by U.S. agents, the correct principle seems to be: “If torture works, we should use it to protect ourselves.”

It is a matter of immense sorrow to note that our leading pundits make scant reference to the fact that the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, including the drafters of our own Constitution, rejected torture on moral, not utilitarian, grounds.

Let us then, for the sake of argument, postulate that torture in some cases produces useful information. Assuming, arguendo, that this is the case, the question for debate is simply this: “Is the use of torture, if effective, state behavior that is morally justified?

In other words, let’s skip the efficacy debate, which debases all who defend torture on utilitarian grounds. Let us debate the central moral issue: “Is torture, even if effective, morally acceptable, and why or why not?”

In this debate, it is worth bearing in mind that the entire edifice of international human rights rests on the inviolability of the physical integrity of the human person. This core principle is deeply rooted in the religious belief that in each human being there resides a part of the divine. It is a stunning testimony to the depths to which our nation has sunk to listen to the debate over the efficacy of torture as if effectiveness were the essential question. Instead of spymasters and doctors and psychologists who have consorted with the devil, it is time for us to listen to others, to our religious and moral leaders, and to politicians and other leading figures who believe there is a moral framework within which our actions—both as individuals and as a nation–are to be judged. It is time for these leaders to stand up and to speak out loudly and clearly on the morality of torture. It is time for them to take an unequivocal position on the torture our government has adopted as a policy and executed in the bowels of hell. It is time for them to demand the full truth and details of what our government has done, acting in our name.

There is no more fundamental human right than the right to the physical integrity of the human person. This right was recognized at Nuremberg, and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, in 1948. It was specifically protected in the Geneva conventions on the law of war (humanitarian law), in 1949. The right is the cornerstone of numerous human rights treaties to which the U.S. is a party including the U.N. Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The right is also fully protected in the European Convention on Human Rights, which establishes the constitutional norms and fundamental law on the subject in the nations of Europe.

So let’s hear the debate on whether the underpinnings of these human rights conventions are to be ripped out by allowing torture, and on the ultimate issue of the morality of the use of torture by the state against the individual. In engaging in this discussion, let us also avoid any semblance of the sophomoric debates that took place in our government, in which the question of torture was addressed as if it were a tabula rasa, in blithe ignorance of the history, religious positions, and legal developments that had taken place in the past.

The Trenchant Observer

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See also

The Trenchant Observer, “Bin Laden and the Debate Over Torture–Revived, May 7, 2011 ;

Mark Benjamin, “The torture debate is back, but what about the criminal probe?” TIME, May 4, 2011;

The Trenchant Observer, “The Clock is Ticking: U.S. Application of the Torture Convention,” February 20, 2010; and

The Trenchant Observer, “Craig’s Departure, the Ban on Publication of Any Torture Photograph, and Reaffirmation of the Prohibition Against Torture,” November 25, 2009

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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