The Lessons of Abu Ghraib
34 Pages Posted: 28 Sep 2004
Shortly after September 11, 2001, journalists, scholars and others actively debated what seemed like a theoretical question: should the United States ever resort to torture to obtain information from captured al Qaeda and other terrorist suspects? I joined the discussion, opining that torture should never be engaged in because it was wrong, ineffective, and counterproductive. Moreover, I argued that there should not be a "ticking bomb exception" to this absolute prohibition, in part because torture would not likely be confined to this narrow, remote circumstance.
Unfortunately, by 2004, this debate has stopped being theoretical. It had become abundantly clear that some United States military and civilian official were engaged in "aggressive" interrogation tactics that could well constitute torture. Finally, in May, 2004, the rumblings about American behavior had a face, and this time the pictures were truly worth a thousand words. Aired on Sixty Minutes II, the graphic display of photographs of abuse in Abu Ghraib prison shocked the world. As one observer noted, "it was Saddam's torture chamber, and now it's our."
The tragic events in Abu Ghraib serve one useful function. They allow the debate on torture to be once again revisited, and provide real world proof for the argument that torture should never be sanctioned. Thus, this paper addresses the lessons of Abu Ghraib: what can we learn from the events there (and elsewhere)? There are five lessons that I would like to discuss. First, and most importantly, what happened at Abu Ghraib demonstrates that moral ambiguity towards torture leads to torture; anything short of an absolute, unequivocal condemnation of abusive interrogation methods inevitably invites the use of torture. The second lesson of Abu Ghraib is that attempting to limit the use of torture to extreme situations, like the "ticking bomb" scenario does not work. Third, Abu Ghraib reinforces the notion that torture is an ineffective tool for obtaining valuable information in the war on terror. The fourth lesson from Abu Ghraib is that any benefit derived from torture is more than outweighed by the harms such a practice engenders. And finally, the fifth lesson is that the future debate over torture must be about definition.
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