We Need Moral Certainty On Torture

The U.S. must return to the fundamental principle that torture is wrong.

December 10, 2014
Torture protest

The release Tuesday of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program unleashed a storm about America’s twisted relationship with torture.

The mind reels at the depraved magnitude of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. Some detainees were kept in what one interrogator described as a “dungeon.” They were “kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste. Lack of heat at the facility likely contributed to the death of a detainee,” according to the report.

“Other times, the detainees…were subjected to what was described as a ‘rough takedown,’ in which approximately five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him outside of his cell, cut his clothes off, and secure him with Mylar tape. The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.”

In reading the report, my mind turned to the famous Milgram experiments. You remember them? In the early 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram recruited people to participate in an experiment on obedience to authority. The participants followed orders to shock people at increasing voltage levels, to the point where the victim was screaming in excruciating pain or was unconscious, possibly dead.

When all was said and done, he found that 65 percent of the participants were willing to inflict extreme and unconscionable levels of harm on other people. (For the record, the victims were actors so no one was hurt in fact).

You might think I’m writing about the CIA employees and contractors who committed torture. I’m not. I’m talking about the American public, the majority of whom support torture. Oh sure, they haven’t gotten their hands dirty, but their complacence about this program is genuinely disturbing and lays the groundwork for the CIA’s actions.

In the years following World War I, the globe forged a durable international consensus opposing torture. Following World War II, that consensus was embodied in the Geneva Conventions and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And in the United States, torture was almost without question considered an abhorrent act, contrary to the soul of our nation.

But 9/11 fliipped a switch. Since then, support for torture has increased. In a recent 2014 poll, 68 percent of the public believed torture could be justified. More specifically, 16 percent said it was always justified; 33 percent said sometimes justified; and 19 percent said rarely justified.

Polls like this are notoriously soft. After all, when asked more precise questions or when particular forms of torture are discussed, support declines. But I think it is fair to say that a very substantial portion of the population either supports torture or can’t be bothered to feel particular outrage about it.

I have a friend, a public, Democratic figure, who has gone on TV to say that as long as it makes him safer, he’s doesn’t care about torture. He just doesn’t want to know about it. I think he’s right when he says that’s how the majority of Americans feel.

The public gets their Milgramian authority for torture from no less than a President of the United States. In the lead up to the report’s release, former President George W. Bush pronounced: “These are patriots and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”  A cluster of political and intelligence officials have joined Bush, regularly squawking that torture has produced results. The CIA yesterday asserted that the program produced valuable intelligence.

Tuesday, President Obama echoed his predecessor issuing a statement that CIA employees are “patriots” to whom “we owe a profound debt of gratitude.”

Look, the vast majority of CIA employees and contractors surely are patriots to whom we do owe a debt of gratitude. But this delicacy about them is a bit much.

The President at least did characterize the program as “troubling” and “inconsistent with our values as a nation.” Obama hastened to add: the program is cancelled. Torture is over now.

Meanwhile, if you went on the White House’s website the day the report was released, you would learn that the “Top News” was an upcoming Twitter Q&A with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Shakira (of “Hips Don’t Lie”). The White House’s Twitter feed helpfully trumpeted the appearance of two NASCAR vehicles parked in front of the West Wing.

So I’m going to call all this for what it is: a mixed message from our President when moral leadership is called for.

We need to reestablish that foundational, incontrovertible moral certainty we once had about torture. The Senate report was a bold and important step toward reestablishing that certitude. More is needed.

There is a less known coda to the Milgram experiments. When dissent was added into the equation, when someone objected to the shocks being administered, the experiment participants’ willingness to inflict abuse diminished substantially.

"The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act," Milgram wrote after more than a decade’s work.

What kinds of situations will we find ourselves in this coming decade and beyond? Will we have the moral leadership and bedrock values that would prevent a repeat of the CIA torture program? Anyone searching for a clarion call for those values should read the Committee’s report for a reminder what happens when we lose our way.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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(Photo: Getty)