With the death of Osama bin Laden, the debate about “enhanced interrogation” techniques has heated up. I wonder whether the Gestapo referred to it as the German equivalent of enhanced interrogation when they tortured prisoners during World War II.
Certainly they were motivated by national security – a desire to uncover plots and save the lives of German troops and civilians – as are we. Yet the torturers of World War II, when they were identified, were tried as war criminals. Does the real difference between “enhanced interrogation” and “torture” come down to who is doing it?
If it’s us, it’s interrogation. If it’s them, it’s torture.
The real issue is not whether you can occasionally get solid information by torturing people. You can. But, more often than not, individuals being tortured will tell you anything they think you want to hear regardless of its accuracy just to get you to stop.
The horror of torture is not just what is done to the victim but also what it does to those who torture and those who condone such cruelty. The use of torture speaks volumes about the values of a society that would permit such inhumane treatment; it’s behavior that degrades the perpetrator as much as the victim.
Crimes against humanity are crimes against all of us, which is why they are so dreadful. They are an offense against what it means to be a human being.
It is obscene for us to debate the utility of torture, particularly when we as a nation lecture others on the importance of human rights. We pride ourselves on being the first to condemn violations of human right by others, yet we sometimes ignore our own.
We cover the practice with euphemisms as if a softer name legitimates the practice. Remember, the Germans did not call the extermination of Jews a “holocaust”; they called it the “final solution.”
It all comes down to the old argument over whether or not the end justifies the means. That rationale has been invoked to justify mayhem throughout history. Despite its flaws, it is at least more honest than the denial of those who knew, or should have known, what was happening.
I can hear the echoes of the debate among the German high command. There must have been some who recognized the evil of torture and indiscriminate executions to discourage partisan attacks. National security won and humanity lost.
We entirely miss the point when we engage in debates on whether or not torture produces valuable information. You can break someone through pain, terror, and other more subtle forms of human degradation. And once you start, the practice becomes less horrifying and is difficult to stop.
Torture can break the body and damage the mind of a victim, but it erodes the soul of those who do it, particularly those who would never do it themselves but who are willing to authorize others to do so.
Like pornography, torture is difficult to define but you know it when you see it. The line between interrogation and torture is clear. It cannot be blurred with a term like “enhance,” a word that normally has a positive connotation.
To brutalize and degrade a helpless human being is wrong even when you believe it is for a good reason. Once you do that, you are no better than those who tortured in the name of king or country throughout history, or in the name of God during the Inquisition.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.