In the wake of the US Senate report on the CIA's use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” plenty of prominent people have defended the use of torture by saying, in essence: terrorists are very bad people; they have information we need; torture is an effective way of getting that information.
There is much to disagree with in such claims. The people who the CIA tortured were not, it turns out, all terrorists (they were not given trials to determine their guilt or innocence before being tortured, and a bunch of them turned out later to have been innocent); torture may be an effective way to get the victim to say what you want them to say, but is not generally, I gather, an effective way to get them to tell the truth; and in my opinion, even if torture were effective, it's morally reprehensible.
But let's set all of those arguments aside. Let's assume that the above defense of the CIA's torture is valid.
Doesn't that imply that we should be using torture much more widely?
In the US, the police are legally not allowed to do things like those “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I'm certain that there are police officers who do torture people, but that's not the point. The point is that doing that is illegal. We have agreed as a society, in the form of making laws about it, that police are not allowed to subject prisoners to these sorts of techniques. (One might even note that we have a Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. But let's set that Constitutional point, too, aside for the sake of argument.)
So then my question is: why? If these techniques are an active good, or even a regrettable necessity, in dealing with suspected terrorists, then why aren't they just as good, just as necessary, in dealing with other suspected criminals?
Proponents of torture are often fond of ticking-time-bomb scenarios. But surely it has happened in the history of the American legal system that, for example, police have held a member of a gang or organized-crime group who has information about an imminent attack that their group plans to make on another group. Surely the police in that situation could save innocent lives by engaging in a little waterboarding, or standing sleep-deprivation, or chaining the prisoner naked to a concrete floor, or mock executions.
(Yes, police and other government agents in movies and TV shows do this sort of thing all the time. But police in fiction do (and get away with) all sorts of illegal things; that doesn't change what the real-life laws say.)
Oh, the torture apologists might say, but terrorism is qualitatively different from mere crime. A terrorist puts the security of our very nation at risk.
But surely other people than terrorists have been believed to put our nation's security at risk. There was that guy who breached White House security in September, for instance. If torture is good for addressing possible threats to national security, then shouldn't we have tortured him to find out whether there was a plot to assassinate the President?
My point is this:
If perceived necessity is the mother of torture, then why are we limiting this essential and fruitful technique to use by (often untrained) intelligence agents on a relatively small number of suspected bad guys? Why aren't the defenders of torture agitating to repeal laws against using it in police departments and prisons?
If torture is such a good thing, then why aren't we fully in favor of using it all the time?
The answer, of course, is that it's not a good thing. It is reprehensible. And it seems to me that the arguments that are offered in its defense would apply equally well to many other contexts in which we recognize that its use would be reprehensible.