Saturday, September 27, 2014

Opinion on Tortu...erm, "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques"

My Professor of Military Science here in DC assigned us a one-page paper about our opinion on the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" to extract desired intelligence from prisoners of war. This was my submission.

At the heart of the policy debate surrounding torture (or, as some euphemistically refer to it, “enhanced interrogation techniques”) lies an age-old philosophical question: do the ends justify the means? The question is difficult to answer because it juxtaposes two competing approaches to determining a just course of action, each of which informs our moral intuitions up to a certain point. Should we, as deontologists suggest, identify actions which are wrong in the abstract, and then refrain from engaging in them across the board? Or should we behave as utilitarians, taking each unique situation as it comes and then acting so as to attain whatever outcome is morally preferable? Philosophers have debated this question for centuries, and it is not likely to be resolved any time soon.

As members of the U.S. military, our answer should be “sometimes.” Clearly, the ends justify the means on some occasions – for instance, almost everyone acknowledges killing as immoral absent context, but the military does it every day in the hopes of preventing an even greater injustice. However, it is equally clear that the ends do not always justify the means; what objective could possibly justify the genocide of innocent civilians? Lest all the world’s evildoers be given free rein to justify immoral activity with whatever convoluted rationales they dream up, we need a fixed method by which to discern the situations in which the ends do justify the means from the situations in which they do not. That line may be different for different people, but for me personally, three criteria must be met:
  1. Failure to obtain the ends must lead to more injustice, on net, than the act in question.
  2. The link between the means and ends must be highly certain; there must be little doubt that the act in question will directly and infallibly produce the intended result.
  3. There must exist no alternatives courses of action or inaction that are likely to achieve the same ends in a morally superior way.
At best, torture satisfies but one of these criteria. Even granting that the first condition is met, the link between the means of torture and the ends of mission success is by no means certain. First, the prisoner may not know the information sought by the interrogators. Even if he does know, the torture may not succeed in making him talk. Even if it does make him talk, it may not make him tell the truth. Even if he tells the truth so far as he knows it, that information may be outdated and useless by the time he provides it. And even if it is true and up to date, it is highly uncertain whether the intelligence provided will be the single decisive factor which determines long term mission success or failure. This also calls the third condition into question: the intelligence might also be acquired by non-torturous methods, and the mission might succeed even without the intelligence. There are simply too many questions surrounding the link between torture and saving American lives as to confidently proclaim that one leads to the other.

Even if torture did work, the extent to which it aids missions in the short term would have to be weighed against the long term damage it does to the United States’ image and prestige. Torture is illegal under international law; is it really in US security interests to be branded as war criminals? Some cite recent ISIS beheading videos as evidence our adversaries have no such scruples, but do we really want to stoop to their level? I joined the Army in part because I thought we were the good guys, that we were more principled than our enemies and that I could serve my country with a clear conscience. Are a few names, addresses and phone numbers really worth sacrificing that moral high ground?

We may quibble over the semantics of it, but deliberately inducing severe pain or physical discomfort on a helpless human being disquiets the conscience on a fundamental level. As a mere cadet, I am neither privy to the intelligence sought by these techniques nor personally aware of their effectiveness at attaining it. But whatever we gained came at steep moral and strategic price, and I am deeply skeptical it was worth it.

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