Jeff Jacoby at the Boston Globe adopts what I think is a morally sustainable position on the use of torture. He declares himself against it even if its use were necessary to save a city. Unlike other pundits, Jacoby allows for the possibility that coercive interrogation will work; that it might save the lives of innocent people. He is simply unwilling to pay the moral price that is necessary to save them. Jacoby writes:
On this page a few years ago I wrote several columns arguing that torture was never acceptable – not even “as a last and desperate option” in the war against jihadist terrorism, a war I strongly support. At a time when not only conservative hawks but even some notable liberals were making the case for using torture to thwart Al Qaeda, I contended that the cruel abuse of terrorist detainees was something we could never countenance – not just because torture is illegal, unreliable, and a threat to the innocent, but because it is one of those practices that a civilized society cannot engage in without undermining its right to call itself civilized.
Torture very often does work. When Dick Cheney “urged the CIA to release memos which he says show harsh interrogation techniques such as water-boarding work,” according to the BBC, he did with the certain knowledge that some al-Qaeda members divulged critical information under duress.
“One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is that they put out the legal memos… but they didn’t put out the memos that show the success of the effort,” Mr Cheney told Fox News. “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified. I formally ask that they be declassified now.”
But I didn’t need Mr. Cheney to tell me that. When I ran safehouses in the anti-Marcos days the first order of business whenever a cell member was captured by the police was to alert the surviving members, move the safehouse and destroy all links to the captured person. That’s because everyone knew that there was a great probability that the captive would talk under duress, however great his bravery and resistance. Nobody I know, or have heard of who has had experience in real-life situations has ever said, “our cell should continue as usual and the safehouse should remain open, despite the fact that one of our own is being tortured by the secret police, because I read in the New York Times that coercion never works.” The probability is that torture works and for that reason its use constitutes a moral dilemma; and the reason why Jacoby believes he is expressing a noble sentiment when he forswears it even as “a last and desperate option” in the War on Terror.
But there was another oath everyone in the underground tacitly made, which is structurally identical to Jacoby’s own. It went something like this: “I promise never to reveal the whereabouts of my companions to the secret police however brutally they torture me.” We all accepted this charge as a moral statement of intention, without deceit or mental reservation, yet without having the slightest certainty that we could carry it out. And the reason for the uncertainty was simple. Nobody actually knows how long he can last until he’s actually in the situation. Anybody who tells you different is probably a liar or fooling himself. Some will go further — much further — under duress than they think. Others will break right away. But nobody can predict it in advance.
It is not often realized that the oath not to break under torture is very similar to Jacoby’s promise never to use coercion even as “a last and desperate option” against a brutal enemy. Fighting terrorism, like the promise never to break under duress, is a test of how much one can endure without crossing a line. And when fear and survival are stake, I am not sure at all what lines people won’t cross.