As the masterminds of the US’s torture strategy testify in court, they try to justify their actions. Liam Glen writes on the harm and ineffectiveness of waterboarding and similar methods.
The use of so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques against suspected terrorists was one of the more pernicious aspects of American policy in the early 2000s. The Obama administration put an end to waterboarding, the most infamous practice, in 2009, but the consequences live on.
This is especially true as James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the psychologists who developed the CIA’s torture techniques, testify in the trial of alleged 9/11 plotters.
Mitchell portrays his actions as a necessity to defend national security. In his words, “to protect American lives outweighed the feelings of discomfort of terrorists who voluntarily took up arms against us. To me it just seemed like it would be dereliction of my moral responsibilities.”
While torture is widely condemned, Mitchell expresses a view that is not too far from the mainstream. Often there is sympathy for the idea of extreme measures in the name of national security. The truth, however, is that the costs far outweigh the supposed benefits.
Torture Does Not Work
Supporters of waterboarding and similar tactics try to distance it from torture. Mitchell has been particularly unapologetic. In one instance, he described the experience of waterboarding, “It sucks, you know. I don’t know that it’s painful. I’m using the word distressing.”
The reality is that waterboarding, a slow form of drowning, is an intensely painful experience. Nearly anyone who has actually gone through the experience, including many US personnel who endured it as part of training, can attest to this.
One of the few supporters of the War on Terror to voluntarily undergo waterboarding, journalist Christopher Hitchens in 2008, wrote of it, “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”
This is not to speak of other methods that have been used in Guantanamo Bay and various “black sites” throughout the world. In 2002, for instance, prisoner Gul Rahman froze to death while chained up by US authorities in a prison in Afghanistan.
Some will say that this is an unfortunate necessity to gain information from suspected terrorists. Mitchell himself wrote to this effect in 2016 for the Wall Street Journal. Notably, however, he did not substantiate his claims with any specific examples.
The effectiveness of torture is difficult to test. No institutional review board will approve a large-scale experiment on the topic. Nonetheless, experts are highly skeptical.
Psychologists like Coral Dando note that while there may be individual cases where a prisoner gives useful information under torture, more often they may say whatever they think their captors want. This could include false or misremembered information. It should be no surprise that the late Senator John McCain, subject to torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, opposed to practice in part for this reason.
International Law Promotes International Security
Torture by the US is a difficult issue for many to care about, in largely part due to the nature of the victims. People like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has admitted to planning the 9/11 attacks, do not attract much sympathy.
According to one line of thought, torture is fundamentally opposed to human dignity and is thus unjustified no matter who the target is. However, this argument does not find sway with everyone. But that does not negate more practical reasons to oppose torture.
Even if some people were deserving of torture, there is no guarantee that the right ones are being targeted. In 2009, former Bush administration official Lawrence B. Wilkerson admitted his belief that many detainees in Guantanamo Bay at the time were actually innocent.
Famous alleged examples include Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was suspected of terrorism but eventually released without charge in 2016, and Ahmed Rabbani, who is still in Guantanamo though he claims to be an innocent taxi driver detained by accident.
The use of torture stems from the idea that the US can ignore international law when necessary for national security. This is obviously appealing to American policymakers frustrated with the expectation that they should follow international norms when the authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups who they are fighting do not.
The current framework of international law is undeniably imperfect, but when the US – the self-proclaimed leader of the free world – does not follow it, then it descends into a total farce. No government will respect rules which America enforces on others yet refuses to follow itself.
Already many have been noted that torture can harm national security. It motivates the nation’s enemies while alienating potential allies. Above all, however, it emboldens other countries to violate human rights. After all, if the US can torture its prisoners without repercussion, why shouldn’t they?
Even if one believes that torture is justified in the most extreme circumstances, there is no argument that it is such an abhorrent practice that it cannot be allowed to become routine. In international law, this means that states agree not to carry it out under any circumstance, even when it may be theoretically justified. It is an essential duty for influential countries like the US to honor this agreement, lest they open the floodgates to worse consequences down the line.