Torture is awful and we should never do it — unless we have to

It might have been more topical to write a column about the swine/Mexican/North American/H1N1 flu, but I’m sick of it. At this point, the panic seems to be more virulent than the virus, but then again, overreactions can only exist in retrospect.

That’s as close to a segue as I think I can manage, so I’ll just go with it. Some people are now looking back on the anti-terrorism policies and actions of 2001 and 2002 as excessive at best and literally criminal at worst, and at the center of all of it is the supposed torture of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and elsewhere.

Justifiably, it’s a very contentious and complicated issue, even when discussed civilly and with intellectual honesty. Mutually exclusive good principles sometimes butt heads, and this is unavoidable. Most of the time, the conversation is cast to make the opposing views look evil or ridiculous, but this isn’t helpful.

So, although there are strong and contradictory views on the issue of torture, what it is, and when – if ever – its use is appropriate, there are several obvious points that everyone should be able to easily acknowledge as starting point for consensus.

First, terrorists deserve to be tortured. Note humanely, not benignly with specific care given to protecting them from permanent physical harm, but actually, terribly, and with a mind toward prolonged suffering and retribution rather than information extraction. That’s what they deserve. People who intentionally target civilians, who blow up children for receiving candy from U.S. soldiers, who behead those they take captive while the victim is still alive, such people have earned no sympathy from anyone and Dante would be hard pressed to imagine a fate too severe for them.

Second, suspected enemy combatants do not deserve to be tortured, or interrogated using enhanced methods, or even detained indefinitely. People are imperfect, and human institutions make mistakes. An Afghan goat herder, a Baghdad shop owner, or an Atlanta security guard at the ’96 Olympics may be terrorists, but they may also be nobodies, knowing nothing or at least guilty of nothing. Torturing innocent people is always wrong, but in a system that tortures, some will suffer who don’t deserve it. The goal, then, must be that a reasonable attempt is made to ascertain guilt or innocence, with some oversight and transparency to ensure reason doesn’t give way to expedience.

Third, the United States does not torture, period. Torture is inherently barbaric and lies squarely within the realm of despots and sadists.

Fourth, if you don’t think that under any laws and any administration a person suspected of having information related to a “ticking bomb” threatening America would be subjected to whatever was required to make him or her give satisfactory answers on that topic, you’re a fool.

I could have phrased those more moderately, but they’re more valid when the rhetoric is extreme, because ultimately, they’re all simultaneously true and true in those terms.

Absolutely, torture is about domination and punishment, and almost always wielded by those who want information without concern for its accuracy (Torquemada and Stalin got confessions, not necessarily accurate information).

Just as absolutely, when dealing with bad men and when the stakes are high, nasty things we don’t want to know about have to and will happen.

It’s good to do good, and it’s necessary to do what’s necessary. But it’s also necessary to do good and good to do what’s necessary.

The only question is extent, where we want to actually float within these absolute ideals, so we can stay appropriately moral and practical. And that’s a very different conversation.

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