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Debating the effectiveness of torture

Published on -1/21/2013, 9:38 AM

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Does torture work? It is a Bush-era debate that has found Obama-era relevance because of a new movie, "Zero Dark Thirty," in which torture seems to work quite well.

The film, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, is being sold as a fact-based accounting of the 10-year manhunt that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. In it, torture -- the water-boarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, hitting and humiliation the U.S. government once antiseptically dubbed "enhanced interrogation" -- is depicted as integral to the information gathering that allowed the CIA to find him.

That depiction has alarmed some observers. Acting CIA Director Michael Morell recently issued a statement to agency employees in which he says the film gives the impression these brutal methods "were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false."

Actors Martin Sheen and Ed Asner are so upset at that impression they reportedly have asked members of the motion picture academy not to support the film in Academy Awards voting.

But torture still has its defenders. Bush-era Attorney General Michael Mukasey penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011 defending the harsh techniques because, he said, they produced results. In a recent column, George F. Will went so far as to quote Jack Nicholson's famous "You can't handle the truth!" speech from "A Few Good Men" about the moral choices the nation's defenders are required to make. Will, who dubbed torture "hard but morally defensible," failed to mention that Nicholson's character ends up arrested and disgraced.

Does torture work?

Beg pardon, but we have been asking the wrong question. What matters is not whether torture works. What matters is whether torture is right.

Consider: Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports that drunk drivers kill almost 10,000 people a year. That's three Sept. 11's and then some. But if you wanted to stop that carnage, it would be simple. Just make drunk driving a capital crime with instant punishment. The evidence -- blood alcohol levels -- allows for scientific certainty of guilt, so there'd be no need of a long trial. We could execute the miscreants within a day.

Drunk driving would disappear. The new policy would solve the problem. It would work.

And if that were truly the ultimate rubric by which we decided a question, there could be no argument against it. But we won't make drunk driving a capital crime for one simple reason.

It would be wrong. In fact, it would be repellent to our values, inconsonant with the kind of people we consider ourselves to be.

That is the same reason torture unsettles the American conscience and why addressing that unease by debating its efficacy misses the point. We are a nation where human rights are enshrined in law, a nation that proudly, routinely lectures other nations on the need to close their gulags, free their dissidents and treat human beings as human beings.

We cannot be that nation and yet also this other nation that tortures and then defends torture because it works. Indeed, if that were the only important metric, what other things might we do, condone or defend?

But it isn't the only important metric.

In America, even drunk drivers, even child rapists and murderers, have rights and, though those rights are sometimes inconvenient, even incompatible with justice, we honor them anyway because we realize the nation's moral authority derives precisely from the willingness of the state to curb its own power -- even when it has reason to do otherwise, even when doing otherwise might "work."

This is an obeisance power makes to human freedom. On the day it no longer does, it is not just terrorists who will be in trouble.

Power that is not constrained by humanity is not constrained by anything at all.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com

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