The Senate Report on C.I.A. Torture

The post “Ebola Vaccines, Medical Ethics, and Manslaughter” comes as close as I dare to describe an ethical judgment. It expresses a suspicion, that Borio and Cox are vulnerable to a challenge, to produce reasoning that their requirement of control-group testing reduces risk to life, rather than increasing it. A discussion of the Senate Report is more dangerous to the detachment of this blog.

Long before release of the Senate report, former F.B.I. agent Ali Soufan determined that “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not work. But in judging the ethicality of an action, does efficacy matter? The outcome is binary: it stopped something, or it didn’t.  If it had stopped a WMD attack, would the Senate report have been written?

Subject to stringent conditions of national permission and encouragement called “war”, you may find yourself with a gun in your hand, and the obligation to inflict a wound on the defined enemy that is not immediately lethal. It could be an abdominal wound, leading to sepsis, with an agonizing, prolonged death. The outlawing of certain kinds of weapons and ammunition that tend to produce this death reduces the probability, but does not make it negligible.

If given the choice of personal fate, between water-boarding and death by sepsis from an abdominal wound, you might choose the former. So it is possible that the subconscious objection to torture is not the state of the victim, but the state of mind of the inflicter. In most cases, the soldier who fires the gun returns to civilian life with the original moral character, or with increased wisdom and reverence for life. But we suspect that the torturer, whose involvement with the victim is much more visceral, may have developed a taste, or may be a sociopath, born to the job.

If you think it’s edgy to even discuss this, consider the Milgram Experiment, in which 65% of the subjects administered electric shocks to a victim who we know was actually an actor. The subjects were told the victim had a heart condition, and he put on a pretty good show of “close to croaking.” The subjects were paid 4 bucks to do this. In the year of the experiment, 1963, America had not yet walked the road paved with good intentions called Vietnam.

So let’s conduct a private experiment on ourselves. Consider the following scenarios:

  • Home invasion. You have a gun, and can shoot at the intruder/perpetrator to protect your family. You do not have the opportunity to retreat to a “safe room.”
  • The same, except that, instead of a clean shot, the intruder will suffer a prolonged and horrible death, perhaps falling into a giant vat of Thanksgiving turkeys.
  • The same again, to protect a neighboring family.
  • Same as the above, except that the  intruder, or threatening person, will not die, but experience pain and permanent physical injury.
  • Same again, except the individual will suffer no lasting physical injury, but with permanent psychological injury.

Perhaps you say yes to some of the above, but you say, you’re not a Milgram subject. And you are proud to be a veteran, or you admire veterans who served in war zones, and who may have applied lethal force.

If you have ethically OK’ed some of the above choices, your personal allowance is motivated by the common element of “clear and present danger.” If so, you are allowing the infliction of what, to the intruder, is completely equivalent to torture.

The are two differences with the actions condemned by the Senate report.

  • In the above list, your action is against the direct perpetrator.  In the Senate report, the actions are against a “third party.” Not a disinterested third party, but, since the captive has already been rendered harmless, he is a third party to other terrorists who collaborated with the captive.
  • In the above list, the harm that comes to the perpetrator, even though it may end up indistinguishable from torture (abdominal wound, lingering days to die) is incidental to interdiction of his criminal act.

This is beginning to look like a minefield. I know why torture scares me. As Milgram showed, the potential exists within most of us. Possibly, all of us. It has the elements of paradox. We can’t define a moral use for torture, yet it grades smoothly into actions that, conditionally, under some circumstances, we might endorse. The C.I.A. activities fall mostly under the last element of the list of scenarios, with some upwards excursion. Someone died of hypothermia while chained to a floor.

It is possible that some of the torturers enjoyed their work. Since only one country, Iran, has a theological authority who has provided religious justification for the torture of suspect subversives, enjoyment comes closest to universal condemnation. But those who set the policy and those communicated the policy never participated in “enhanced interrogation.”

The roads to all theological destinations are paved with good intentions. Next, what made them think they were doing the right thing.