Kathryn Bigelow's new film, Zero Dark Thirty, has reignited the debate over the role torture should play in U.S. counterterrorism policy. Here's the CliffsNotes answer: none.
Torture is abhorrent, un-American, and wrong. As President Obama properly noted back in May 2009, torture also undermines the rule of law, compromises our image abroad, puts our own troops at risk, and helps terrorists recruit. Even if torture contributed some nugget of information (almost a decade ago) to the hunt for bin Laden, that doesn't make brutality right.
Here are the facts: According to those who have seen Bigelow's as-yet-unreleased film (full disclosure: I haven't), the first 45 minutes focus on the brutal interrogation of detainees in the early 2000s, implying that information obtained from torture may have produced "useful early clues" in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Supporters of torture as a tool of national security argue that this justifies torture. If it led to the capture of bin Laden, it must be okay. Call it the reductio ad Bin Laden.
First, here's why this argument is morally wrong. As most sensible people will tell you, the ends don't always justify the means. Locking people up without trial would likely snare some actual criminals, but that doesn't mean it's right. Chopping off people's hands for committing petty crimes would probably deter pickpocketing, but that doesn't make it okay. Arguing that something works isn't a valid response to deep-seated moral objections. Lost in the argument over torture's effectiveness is the debate over torture's morality.
Second, let's discuss the practical difficulties with the "it helped us find bin Laden" argument. Putting aside the myriad of officials who say torture didn't actually help, let's assume it did -- that back in the early 2000s, some information gleaned through torture eventually formed part of the vast panoply of data that led Seal Team Six to a compound in Abbottabad almost a decade later. Almost all of that information was obtained without using brutal interrogation techniques. Arguing that specific information obtained by torture in the early 2000s lead to locating bin Laden in 2011 is like finding the butterfly that started Hurricane Sandy.
Third, even if this information did lead to bin Laden, that doesn't mean torture was the only way to obtain it. Many professional interrogators believe torture is ineffective and counterproductive. Senator McCain -- no softie on national defense -- has unequivocally opposed torture and regularly recounts how it didn't work on him. Even assuming that information obtained by torture was essential to finding bin Laden, that doesn't mean that torture was essential to obtaining that information. There are other ways to get it, consistent with who we are.
Fourth, a narrow-gauge focus on the bin Laden hunt alone does not assess the full cost that torture inflicts. Torture makes individuals less likely to surrender to U.S. troops because they fear inhumane treatment. It makes others more likely to mistreat our troops because, they argue, they're only following the U.S. example. Torturing also makes it easier for terrorists to recruit, because we lose the moral high ground.
We all know that torture is wrong. That's why it is widely prohibited under domestic and international law. So by all means, go see Zero Dark Thirty when it comes out. But when the lights go down in the theater, don't lose sight of who we are and what we stand for.