Still Stupid, Still Wrong, Still Immoral
Why the death of Osama Bin Laden shouldn't change our views about torture—or of the people who approved it.
Elsewhere in Slate, Jack Shafer makes the case for releasing the Bin Laden photo, William Saletan explains why the human-shield myth was a bad idea, Dave Weigel talks about how Osama's death proved everyone right, John Dickerson looks at Obama's poll numbers, Chris Beam explains the mood in Pakistan, Heather Murphy compiles a slide show of the elite Navy SEALs, and Maura O'Connor looks at how the war still continues in Afghanistan. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit The Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up here.
Nor is any of that inconsistent with what Leon Panetta told Brian Williams Tuesday night, a statement that has been weirdly spun to suggest that Panetta linked the torture itself to the capture of Bin Laden. In fact what Panetta said was: "No, I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I'm also saying that, you know, the debate about whether—whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always gonna be an open question."
Panetta seems merely to have admitted that some people were water-boarded. Again, notice the same formulation. "We tortured some people. We got some information later. Maybe there is a connection. We will never know." Is that an endorsement of the efficacy of torture? Insert your own personal policy preference here.
And here's the genius part: In support of personal policy preferences, facts are wholly optional. Lack of facts can also be highly probative. For example: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was water-boarded 183 times in 2003, lied about knowing Bin Laden's courier, as did Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was interrogated in 2005. They offered no useful information. Yet torture advocates now say that because both men denied knowing the courier—thus tipping off the CIA that he must be someone important—torture must work. Got it? Torture works when the prisoners disclose information, but it also works when they don't. It's win-win!
The fact that we have swamped a debate about the killing of Osama Bin Laden with a distraction over torture is another national embarrassment. Why aren't we debating the efficacy of any of the other intelligence-gathering or surveillance methods that also contributed to the success of the hunt for bin Laden? We are being conned yet again, and allowing ourselves to be conned again, by a handful of people who want to justify their own crimes. Remember all those debates about the need to be allowed to torture in "ticking time bomb" scenarios? We are now having a discussion about an alleged ticking time bomb that took eight years to blow—if it blew at all.
There is just one question about America and torture: whether we should do it. The answer to that, after hundreds of years of legal thinking and moral progress, not just in America but around the world, is no. It's bad for those asked to torture, and it's bad for our soldiers who will be tortured by others. A bunch of Bush officials secretly changed that answer for a time, based on misapprehensions of its efficacy, but for serious interrogators, ethical thinkers, and lawyers, the answer has always been no.
The folks who think otherwise are now using half-facts and unverifiable assertions to ask another question: Does torture work? Unsurprisingly, they claim that it does. That's nice. Let's ignore them. As former interrogator Matthew Alexander explains, even if it did work, we still wouldn't do it—because it's immoral and leads to all sorts of false claims and wasted time. The answer to question No. 1—should America torture?—has nothing to do with the bogus questions being raised today.
In short, if you are being led by a handful of torture apologists to "reconsider" the efficacy of torture, ask yourself whether you have yet heard even one credible account that water-boarding led us to Bin Laden. I haven't. At most, I have heard that it may have played some very small part in a vast tangle of intelligence and surveillance and patient detective work, all of which is unproven and—more important—impossible to disprove. A handful of cynics may want to relitigate the efficacy of torture based on facts not in evidence. The rest of us should continue to remind them that they have been answering the wrong question all along.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of chair and light by Phase4Photography.