Torture policy will be invalidated by history

Earlier this month, the U.S. government announced that it would seek the death penalty sentencing for six men held at Guantanamo Bay, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. This decision, as well as the process leading up to it, has struck controversy for a number of reasons.

First, the accused men were imprisoned for over five years before finally being charged. Second, the death penalty, which most U.S. allies condemn, is the sentence being sought by military prosecutors. Third, the trials will take place in the military commissions system which denies basic rights such as habeas corpus to the accused. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, evidence obtained through “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding — which the rest of the world says unequivocally is torture — could possibly be admitted at trial.

For those who believe in the merits of torture, this case seems ideal for defending their position. If ever the need for vital information justified torture, it was when trying to extract information from those who plotted one of the most horrific attacks on American soil. But by no means have these arguments convinced everyone. Opponents of torture reject the administration’s position on a number of grounds — namely, torture produces unreliable evidence; a conviction based on coerced evidence lacks legitimacy; the use and implicit endorsement of torture by the U.S. government puts U.S. troops in danger of being tortured; cases of prisoners in U.S. custody being tortured incites extremism; and, most simply, the U.S. should be above torture, a barbaric and inhumane practice.

The arguments, far from being novel, are part of a familiar debate, which has played itself out over and over again since the fiasco surrounding Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and CIA secret prisons first began.

As one watches this debate unfold yet again, it is hard not to feel discouraged. It is not that opponents of torture are apathetic in their defense of human rights or that their arguments are unconvincing. (Quite to the contrary, the response pressuring the administration to provide greater protections to the accused has been impressive, especially given their involvement in the 9/11 attacks.) What is discouraging is that we still must make these arguments.

Since we are having a debate on torture, it is clear that some people still doubt the idea that torture lacks justification in all circumstances. Which raises the question: How exactly does one put such doubts to rest? Torture is wrong. It is inhumane. What else is there to say?

A century and a half ago, Frederick Douglass posed a similar question when fighting against slavery, that most peculiar of institutions. “Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery?” he asked. “Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom, speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively? To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

With time, history came to validate Douglass’ judgment of slavery. Once the injustice of slavery became evident, the institution lost any hope of justification, as well as its central place in public debate.

To compare opposition to torture with the abolitionist movement implies that history will validate the former just as it did the latter. Perhaps such a belief is too presumptuous. But then again, when one sees the images that came out of Abu Ghraib, it is difficult to imagine history ever looking favorably upon our policy of torture. As long as moral contradictions exert some force on individuals, one can take hope in knowing that, like slavery, torture eventually will lose its grounds for justification. At present, when the nation’s consciousness has yet to arrive at this realization, we can follow the abolitionist movement’s example, working to make sure that torture is seen for what it is — a foolish and unnecessary practice — sooner rather than later.

To take a first step to opposing the U.S. system of illegal detention and torture, please sign Amnesty’s petition at

Ben Jones is political science graduate student. He is a member of the Amnesty International club at Yale.


  • heartsurgeon

    I believe the canard the "torture doesn't work" should be put to rest. Regardless of your position on this topic, one should at least stick to the facts. The facts are, torture does work. It apparently worked in this case. It has worked throughout history. One may abhor it moral grounds, but lets stick to facts..please.

  • Recent Alum

    #1, torture does not work, in the sense that coercive interrogation techniques that are not torture (e.g., waterboarding, sleep deprivation, etc.) are extremely effective at getting information, and actual torture (meaning inflicting of intense physical pain) is almost never necessary. Of course, if one takes the overbroad view of the term as the author does, and include even things like waterboarding as torture, then I would have to agree with you.

  • heartsurgeon

    By claiming torture doesn't produce useful information (which is demonstrable a false assertion, it clearly worked in Algiers in the 1960's), you can claim the moral high ground and avoid any heavy mental lifting…grappling with the real moral dilemma..

    the real issue is under what circumstances would you be morally compelled to torture someone..

    how can this be! compelled to torture!!

    well, assume someone has information that, if divulged, could save X innocents from certain death. At some point, the number X becomes large enough that you will be compelled to use any means necessary to obtain that information.

    That's the real question. Claiming torture should be outlawed because it doesn't work is intellectually lazy and dishonest. It avoids unpleasant facts and reality.

  • Anonymous

    The "alleged mastermind" of the 9/11 attacks?

    Here's what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed testified on March 10, 2007:

    "I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z."

    He also testified that he was responsible for the 1993 WTC bombing and had personally beheaded Daniel Pearl.

  • really?

    Waterboarding and sleep deprivation are definitely torture.

  • Alumnus

    Heartsurgeon, the facts are that torture produces more false information than real information. This is a position supported by General Petraus. After being tortured Senator McCain admitted to being a "war criminal". Is he one?

    You claim "facts" support that torture obtains useful information. This is true to an extent. But your conclusion supposes that one never obtains information unless torture is used. The facts are that useful information is obtained at similar rates using and not using torture as an interrogation method. Thus, the question is not really moral but practical. Why torture when the results are similar?