In conversation with ABC News in his first televised interview since taking office, President Donald Trump spoke in strikingly frank terms about the possible use of torture as a tool for interrogation.
“I have spoken as recently as twenty-four hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence,” Trump said. “And I asked them the question, ‘Does it work? Does torture work?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”
What’s immediately striking here is the open use of a word—“torture”—that is eschewed in official conversation by most of those who support what it describes. Under the Bush administration, the American government admitted to practicing “enhanced interrogation.” Suspects were subjected to “special methods of questioning” and sometimes placed in “stress positions” or conditions of “sleep deprivation.” Much of this was, without question, a form of torture, and no one who reads the detailed accounts of it can honestly claim otherwise. It is a small virtue of Trump’s post-P.C. era that we no longer have to keep up this façade.
The other thing that stands out in Trump’s remarks is the way he sees the essential question: “Does it work?” “Absolutely I feel it works,” he said to ABC. “I haven’t seen it work. But I think it works.”
This slogan deserves our scrutiny. And while it is easy to focus on whether Trump is correct to claim that torture is effective, our questioning should take us farther. What is it for torture to work? That is, what end is torture meant to serve? And, in the cases where it does work, how does it do so? This last question requires something difficult to stomach, namely an understanding of torture, an account of the means by which it is supposed to achieve its aim.
Such an understanding will be especially important to the evaluation of torture according to an anti-consequentialist understanding of right action. If consequentialism were true—if, that is, there were no sort of action that could not in principle be justified by its consequences—then perhaps the question “Does it work?” would be enough. If, however, consequentialism is false, then that question cannot be the only one to ask. The anti-consequentialist grants that many methods might work to achieve a given aim, but holds that only some of them can be permitted. Which methods are permissible cannot be settled just by determining their efficacy. For first we need to understand the actions that these methods involve, in order to determine whether any of these are such as to be ruled out from the start.
In the case of torture, the great barrier to achieving this understanding is that the nature of torture cannot be grasped “from the outside,” in a way that abstracts from the experience of its subject. Torture is different from, say, a root canal or other physical operation in that what it is to be tortured is inseparable from what it is like to undergo it. A root canal causes pain, but doesn’t work by doing so. With torture, however, the experience is essential, as it is through this experience that torture is supposed to lead a person to break down and confess.
That we have not experienced torture ourselves does not mean, however, that we are simply blocked from understanding it. For we can hear from others a firsthand account of what it is like, and in virtue of our shared humanity draw on past experiences to project imaginatively into their situation. Consider the testimony of the detainee Abu Zubaydah, who was tortured in a CIA black site after being captured in 2002 (at times I have clarified his English slightly):
They put me in a big box the same height as myself and they put the bucket in with me. Toilet bucket. I had no chance to sit except in the bucket and because the bucket did not have a cover, I sometimes found myself inside it. And the space was too small; I spent hours and hours until someone came and saved me from the bucket; again and again it was full of urine. I can’t do anything. I can’t sit or do anything for hours and hours. Then they started beating me through the wall. They beat me badly in the back, in my back, in my head. Last thing they put me in a medical bed. They shackle me completely, even my head; I can’t do anything. They put one cloth on my mouth and they put water, water, water. Last point before I die they stand up the bed they make like this [making breathing noises] again and again they make it with me and I tell them, “If you want to kill me, kill me.”
It was in the course of this torture that Abu Zubaydah is said to have provided information that led to the identification of two important terrorist suspects.
The alleged efficacy of Zubaydah’s torture is disputed. What is not up for dispute, however, is how the torture worked, assuming for the sake of argument that it worked at all. The torture worked by reducing a man to a shadow, making him suffer intensely and fear for his life, humiliating him sexually and leaving him for hours sitting in the dark in his own urine and feces. The aim of this may have been noble, but the means taken toward it were not. The means were evil. This man was tortured. The word itself, which Trump himself uses so brazenly, conveys why we should abhor these actions. If torture is wrong, it’s wrong whether or not it works. It’s wrong because it’s torture.
It is a central principle of the Christian ethic that one must not do evil that good may come. That ethic does not require us to ignore the consequences of our actions, since it allows that some generally bad things—such as root canals—may in some cases be made good by their consequences. Yet it does require us to accept that there are some ways of acting that we can identify as evil no matter their consequences, and must bravely eschew even when bad consequences threaten. Torture is one of these. Calling it by its name should be a first step toward demanding that it not be done.
John Schwenkler is assistant professor of philosophy at Florida State University.
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