Nothing justifies torture. Torture is wrong. The torture apologists are the Big Brother of 1984...trying to rename it to make it prettier, less offensive. It's not the name--it's the reality. Waterboarding is torture. Deafening noise is torture. Forced sleeplessness is torture. And everybody, including the torture apologists, knows that at root--because these are the kinds of things that even they call torture when it's done by someone else, especially by an enemy. It's not "enhanced interrogation techniques"--it's torture. Torturers themselves should not be tortured--because torture is wrong. Serial killers should not be tortured--because torture is wrong. The evil men who allow, encourage, support torture should not be tortured--because torture is wrong. There are people in this world I would happily send to execution, if it were my choice, but I would not see anyone, anywhere, for any reason, tortured....because it is wrong. It is a wrong so wrong that it contaminates those who do it, turning them as inhuman as they believe their victims are. It is a wrong so wrong that it contaminates the entire chain of command that allows it.
When the situation at Abu Ghraib came out, I wrote a fairly long post here on LiveJournal about it (can't get back to it--there;s no easy way to search. However, I did cite Bush's responsibility for Abu Ghraib on my website in 2004, in an essay on Bush as Commander in Chief. The LiveJournal post would was written within a month after the Abu Ghraib stuff came out, and I also discussed it on SFF.net, where other veterans agreed with me that such behavior means a chain of command that's rotten at the top, not just at the bottom where the deeds are done.
The fact that torture has been around for the entire history of the human race (judging by some skeletal remains showing its effects, and artwork the same) does not make it OK, anymore than the existence of murder, rape, etc. make them OK. I learned as a small child that "Well, Tommy did it too" does not excuse a misdeed. Wrong is wrong.
The fact that sometimes (not always, or nearly as often as torture apologists would have you believe) the person being tortured reveals information that is a) true and b) of use does not justify torture. No matter how "important" it it, the damage done to the torturers is greater--individually, by becoming people who can do it, whatever group they represent, by becoming a society that endorses it, by the damage to their reputation as well...though once the damage is done to their character, their reputation hardly matters.
You will hear people say that it's unpatriotic, even treasonous, to oppose torture. No. It is unpatriotic and treasonous to ignore the harm done to individuals, groups, and nations by the practice of torture, in order to endorse something that is morally wrong. In the case of government officials who endorse torture, enable torture, it is also a violation of law, in addition to morality (we all know that law and morality do not map 100%, but in this case they do.) The Constitution says that treaties signed by this nation are the same as our own laws, under the Constitution--they have Constitutional power, (which is why the early Presidents were extremely reluctant to make lots of treaties.) The United States, along with other victor nations of
WWII, pushed for the international recognition that torture was wrong and that prisoners of war should be treated fairly. The Geneva Conventions do apply to us.
Does this mean taking some damage rather than do evil? Yes. That's what moral choices are about, after all. It takes courage and justice to stand against the temptation to evil, when it looks like evil may bring immediate profit. And torture apologists always make the case thatthe one piece of information needed to save a city or a campaign is held by an enemy who is (another 1984 bit of language) "noncompliant." That if you don't torture the people who don't reveal what you think they're concealing, your own people will suffer for it. (The problem with that reasoning will be discussed later.)
But self-interest on the side of right, in this case. Torture exacts a price from the torturer and from the society that supports torture. All of the evils that begin with dehumanizing people damage those who think up or practice them. One of the causes of war-related PTSD is not merely what was done to the person with PTSD, but what that person did--against their own moral code--to others, sometimes following orders and sometimes in moments of anger or terror or both. More than that, the experience of ignoring the humanity of the person you're torturing changes those who do it--makes them less empathetic, less loving, less likely to treat all others--enemy or not--as fully human persons with a right to be treated as human--humanely. Their families suffer. Their neighbors suffer. Their communities suffer. The more their abuse of communication--of language--contaminates common speech, the more their attitudes about people--their cynicism, their contempt, their cold and vicious hearts--contaminate the media and the common experience of their culture, the more damage their communities and cultures and societies and religions suffer. Torturers, to keep doing it--and their apologists--have to construct a new moral code in which torture is OK if it's our torture, and that moral code seeps into every human interaction. Rape. Human trafficking. Racism, Gay-bashing. Women-hating. Domestic violence. Child abuse. Abuse of power by law enforcement, by prison guards, by the government....all thrive in the atmosphere that makes torture acceptable...because all of them--to be acceptable--depend on defining the victim as less than fully human.
Someone who considers African-Americans fully human never calls them "animals" or "niggers" or "thugs," does not assume that every Black person in a store is a shoplifter, every Black person in college "just got in because he was Black," every Black woman walking with a White man is a prostitute.. Someone who considers women fully human doesn't yell comments about her on the street, doesn't get mad if she doesn't want to date him, doesn't assume that all women lie when they say theyve been raped. Someone who considers children as fully human doesn't cover up child abuse, doesn't abuse children, doesn't sanction policies that put children at greater risk of abuse, and certainly doesn't let a child rapist off on the grounds that a 3 yo child "seduced" him. Someone who considers gays and lesbians as fully human does not condone attacks on gays--economic, political, religious, or physical. It's not a matter of whether someone likes someone in one of these groups--there are people I personally dislike, but still acknowledge as human beings. It's not a matter of agreement or disagreement (although these days people do tend to assume that if you don't agree with someone it's the same as not acknowledging their right to exist...but that again is a symptom of the toxic effect of accepting torture--and racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.-- as the price of doing business.)
The cost of torture is demonstrably greater than any claimed benefits from it. So why is it popular among some people? Because some people were brought up mean, allowed to think that they had enormous entitlement (because they were rich, because they were powerful, because their parents were totally crap parents...take your pick ) and for them torture is a way of proving their power. Making powerless people scream gives them a thrill. That's not something to celebrate. That's not "being a man." That's being a bully.
Torture is wrong.
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Addendum, an hour or so later. Thanks to a friend on another venue who gave me this link:
Maj. Gen. Taguba (ret) is one of my heroes for the way he handled the investigation of Abu Ghraib, knowing this would deep-six his career. In a just country, he would have been promoted for his character and be on JCS.