As I understand it, nobody suggests that torture is an ideal policy option. Most people who defend the Bush Administration argue that the unique threat of international terrorism justifies the use of certain otherwise-reprehensible techniques. I’m frankly appalled by this crude utilitarian calculus, but I can at least understand the logic (and surface appeal) of their view. So it’s a bit jarring to read the latest round of torture memos and find that there is absolutely no conclusive evidence that torture developed critical, actionable intelligence. There is, to be sure, plenty of information that suggests some combination of interrogation techniques provided useful information. But this hardly vindicates Dick Cheney’s enthusiasm for detainee mistreatment.
So my question is simple: Was it worth it? Was undermining the rule of law, contravening established norms of basic human decency, and ruining our international reputation worth gleaning a few nuggets of information that may or may not have resulted from “enhanced interrogation?” After skimming the memos, it seems clear that even the most generous cost benefit analysis has difficulty rationalizing torture.
I hate to lapse into cliche, but we’ve reached a point where the justifications for mistreating detainees have become so attenuated that “shifting the goalposts” is now an understatement of epic proportions. First, we were told that torture was necessary to address an existential threat. Next, it was the dreaded “ticking time bomb.” Finally, Cheney and his surrogates assured us that torture had produced “actionable intelligence.” If these memos can’t even establish that torture and torture alone is necessary to clear this latest hurdle, isn’t it time to acknowledge that it simply wasn’t worth it?