The newly sworn-in President of the United States has been saying quite a few idiotic things, and doing some interesting things, as well. I wish to look at only one of the things he has said: “Torture absolutely works.”
“Does torture work? . . . Absolutely I feel it works.”
In his favor, he had asked “people at the highest level of intelligence” whether torture works, and that was their answer, “Yes.”
And Sen. Rand Paul responded with a resounding “No,” citing more specific studies.
Now, to me the question is irrelevant. Whether torture gives us good information or misinformation or even poisoned disinformation, torture is an abridgment of human rights. Furthermore, it has a long history of harming innocents; as Rand Paul noted, recent torture procedures in rendition zones turned out to have harmed quite a number of innocent — misidentified or set up — suspects. Our whole system of jurisprudence developed around the idea of protecting innocents from incorrect punishment and outrageous moral horrors. And the method of torture is not just using pain and damage and fear to gain information, the method is also one of secret proceedings apart from normal judicial processes.
When we say torture abridges human rights, we are not merely expressing a preference, or establishing some arbitrary cultural norms. There is a reason for our rights-imputation to counter torture. For we find that not only does torture harm innocents, it abuses the guilty and — more obviously than anything else — it empowers government personnel to take license rather than uphold justice. Torture corrupts.
And one of the grounds of universal human rights is to prevent the corruption of that most dangerous of institutions, the State. To give government functionaries the lattitude to torture foreigners or citizens gives them way too much power, power that we know very well cannot be handled by frail humanity.
So, when POTUS Trump — or even Rand Paul — pretends that “does torture work?” is a relevant question, we should be very concerned. Torture should be opposed even if it does give government functionaries “reliable information.”
Further, the language of Trump is, obviously and characteristically, sloppy in the extreme. Who cares if he “feels” torture works? On important matters we must demand higher epistemic standards than “feels.”
And there is no way that this contentious issue can be responded to with an “Absolutely.” There have to be some points of contention here. Nothing I have read in the literature surrounding torture gives me enough confidence to use the word “absolute,” in adverbial form or otherwise.
Thankfully, Sen. Rand Paul expresses a reasonable desire to extend more oversight over the federal government’s intelligence community. If “people at the highest level” of this community have a hankering to torture — as their confident answer seems to suggest — we must indeed keep a close watch on them .