Moral posturing on torture just isn't good enough

Reading the summary of the just-released report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation program is a deeply depressing experience. The accounts of torture in the name of national security are shaming and revolting. They are bound to incline any decent person to the view that torture is wrong, always and everywhere.

That conviction, I’m sure, ought to dictate policy – but it’s unsatisfactory nonetheless. It falls short, to begin with, because it’s false. In addition, because it’s false, it provides too flimsy a defense against arguments that say, war is a terrible thing but sometimes you just have to do what’s necessary.

Circumstances that would make torture morally justifiable aren’t that hard to imagine. The ticking-bomb scenario is the classic thought-experiment. Make the bomb nuclear. How many really believe that it would be better to let millions die than use torture on one man to gain the information that would allow the bomb to be defused?

Asserting that torture is wrong, always and everywhere, is really a moral posture – an admirable one, to be sure – rather than an exercise in moral reasoning. It’s an injunction not to think about a question we fear will have a disturbing answer. We can do better than that.

Because torture might conceivably be justified, the question of whether it works becomes relevant. (If it could never be justified, there’d be no need to ask whether it worked.) In fact, efficacy is the main subject of the new report. Its finding is that torture failed. Not only that, it suggests that torture was actually counterproductive from an intelligence-gathering point of view. Subjected to the disgusting methods described in the report, people who didn’t know anything resorted to pretending they did and gave up false information.

What slightly blunts the force of this finding is the evident incompetence of the people in charge. Interrogators weren’t always trying to get information from people known to have (or even strongly suspected of having) information to give. They tortured people to find out if they had any information. In one way, this makes what was done even more shocking; in another, it’s less surprising that the results were so bad. Perhaps more competent torturers could have been less promiscuously depraved and seen better results. More plausibly, interrogation falling well short of torture would have worked at least as well.

In any event, the program failed. Notice, too, how far removed it was from the ticking-bomb scenario, where somebody is known to have information of enormous value measured in innocent lives and is forced to surrender it. That kind of justification doesn’t apply.

The program was not in any sense a desperate measure of last resort. On the contrary, it was planned, organized, and made routine. Memos went to and fro, blandly discussing what was being done. Secret facilities were built and equipped for the purpose. This being an agency of the U.S. government, lawyers nit-picked legal rationales. Where that wasn’t possible, strategies were devised simply to evade the law. And, just to be safe, nobody took responsibility and everybody lied.

This was not a single, forgivable instance of terrible action under duress. It was an elaborate and ongoing system. In thinking through the rights and wrongs, that matters. There’s a difference between ordinary mass killing and building a concentration camp.

Knowing only as much as this – that torture is disgusting, that it didn’t work, and that the standard line of justification doesn’t apply – you could accept that torture might be allowable in certain imaginable circumstances and still deplore the CIA program. To reach that conclusion, you don’t need to consider the further, indirect costs of what was done. Let’s consider them anyway.

The program was shameful and therefore had to be hidden. Congress was lied to. This undermined the rule of law – a matter on which the U.S. prides itself and likes to lecture the world. Notions of constitutional accountability were trashed by plausible deniability and outright lies. The CIA acted as a law unto itself, partly because it was allowed to, even asked to. (Just do what it takes. Spare us the details.) The program, in other words, was an assault on the American idea of lawful government.

Above all, it eroded, and continues to erode, America’s moral standing. I’m less concerned about the effects this has on U.S. soft power and allies’ willingness to cooperate, real as those may be, than I am with the effect on how Americans see themselves. To prevail in the struggle against enemies such as Islamic State, we need to know we are better than they are. It’s important, when we feel revulsion at the video-taped beheadings of innocent people, that we don’t also need to wonder if we aren’t as cruel or as capable of evil.

Moral advantage makes you stronger. More than that, if we aren’t better than they are, how much would it matter if they won?

Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.