Bin Laden’s Death Does Not Prove that Torture Works

The assassination of Osama bin Laden has revived the so-called torture debate in the United States with some officials claiming bin Laden’s death proves torture works.

John Yoo, a former Justice Department official who authored some of the “torture memos,” wrote Monday in the National Review that “President Obama can take credit, rightfully, for the success today, but he owes it to the tough decisions taken by the Bush administration.” Yoo made the same argument in the Wall Street Journal, claiming that it was the Bush administration’s “intelligence architecture” that “marked the path to bin Laden’s door.”

Peter T. King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee best known for holding the McCarthy-esque Hearings on Islamic Radicalization earlier this year, told Fox News that the success of the hunt for bin Laden was due to waterboarding. And in an interview with NBC, even C.I.A. chief Leon Panetta—who in his confirmation hearings in 2009 maintained that waterboarding is torture and that torture is wrong—said that intelligence garnered from waterboarded detainees was used to track down bin Laden and kill him.

Torture is effective, these officials argue, and a dead bin Laden is their proof.

But there are several problems with this argument. Despite claims to the contrary, torture has been proven time and again to produce unreliable intelligence. People will say anything to get you to stop hurting them. Even if, as the New York Times reports, one detainee who was “apparently subjected to some tough treatment provided a crucial description of the courier,” there were also two other detainees who underwent some of the same treatment (including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, waterboarded 183 times) who repeatedly misled interrogators about the courier’s identity.

Intelligence is not actionable if you can’t determine whether or not it’s true. Torture made it impossible to tell the difference between good and bad intelligence. Even more, torture produced misleading intelligence. Glenn L. Carle, a retired C.I.A. officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002 told the Times that coercive techniques “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council said, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003.” He continued, “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

Even people who invoke the “ticking time bomb” scenario—a thought experiment in which you are asked to imagine that you have detained a person who knows the location of a bomb that will go off in a city and kill thousands of people—can’t use bin Laden’s death to support their argument. The ticking time bomb argument depends on a belief that torture produces actionable intelligence quickly, but it’s taken ten years to find bin Laden, so unless the bomb wasn’t set to go off for a decade this argument is meaningless.

Even if you set aside the facts that show that torture actually doesn’t work and take, just for a moment, torture apologists at their word—that waterboarding produced the intelligence needed to find and kill bin Laden—there are important ethical questions regarding efficacy as a justification for torture. Just because something “works” does that make it right? Can effectiveness ever serve as the justification for doing something that is ethically, morally, and legally wrong? 

Would you let your child get away with that kind of reasoning? Yes, Mom, I cheated on my test, but I got an “A,” so cheating can’t be wrong. If efficacy is our only guide when deciding whether or not to advocate certain actions or policies, we will end up supporting horrible, unethical things. Like child labor. Or slavery. Or dictatorships. Torture is wrong because it is wrong, and its effectiveness would not change that fact.

Revenge is Not Justice

The prohibition against torture is well-established under international law as jus cogens, which essentially means that some things are so fundamentally wrong (genocide, slavery, torture) that it is illegal for any country to pass a law that would make these crimes “legal.” It may well be that the efficacy argument is only possible because torture is not understood to be wrong by many people in the United States, and part of the reason for that is because no one has been punished for engaging in it.

Officials are able to champion their use of torture—as Bush did in Decision Points—because no one in the Bush Administration has been held accountable for torturing or for authorizing torture despite the overwhelming evidence that they did so. There are some countries to which Bush and Cheney can’t travel because they are considered war criminals, but they can travel freely in the United States, making the rounds on talk shows and going on book tours.

What makes this failure of accountability so insidious is that a lack of punishment can be read as a kind of sanction. Torture will not seem wrong, will not be labeled as the crime against humanity that it technically is, if no one gets in trouble for doing it. This lack of accountability makes it possible for torture to be transformed from a war crime into a means justified by an end, which then makes it possible for Yoo and King and Panetta and Bush and Cheney and the American public to say Yes, we tortured, but look! It worked!

I was increasingly uncomfortable as I watched television after bin Laden had been killed and saw people celebrating in New York City, Washington DC, and in baseball stadiums, waving flags and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Many of the newscasters seemed to want to celebrate, too, as they parroted (and continue to parrot) the dominant narrative: bin Laden’s killing was revenge for 9/11; bin Laden’s killing made the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan worthwhile; bin Laden’s killing proves torture works. Justice was served, people said, which is just a fancy, tricky, misleading way of saying “we got you back.”

But justice and revenge are not the same thing. When I teach in college classrooms about torture, some of my students who support US-sanctioned torture justify their position by insisting that torturing detainees is one way to “get even” for 9/11. Their reasoning mirrors that of some of the soldiers involved in the torture itself.

In an article about his interview with former Guantánamo detainee David Hicks (author of Guantánamo: My Journey), Jason Leopold writes that Brandon Neely, a former Guantánamo Military Policeman said some soldiers tortured detainees because they wanted revenge for 9/11. “We were told… all of the detainees… were the ones who planned 9/11 or had something to do with it,” Neely said. “We were told over and over and over that all these guys were caught fighting Americans on the front lines and at any given time if we turned our back on them they would kill us in a heartbeat. We were told that everyday before we went to work inside the camps. After a while, the attitude was ‘who cares how we treated the detainees.’”

Revenge is a powerful motivator, and there are theological precedents for it. Some of the early Christian martyrs, for example, imagined a God who would avenge their deaths by torturing their tormentors for eternity, and revenge by one human against another has long been understood by some as “God’s work.” At the same time, however, there are theological resources for resisting the desire for revenge, and many of these arguments depend on a view that recognizes the sanctity and dignity of every human life.

The mission statement for the National Religious Campaign against Torture, for example, states that “[t]orture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved—policy-makers, perpetrators and victims… Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation.” In many religious traditions, it is this belief in the sanctity and dignity of every human life—even the lives of our enemies—that makes it possible to say that human beings are made in the image of God. 

Much is at stake. In Strength to Love, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction… The chain reaction
of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of

Soon after bin Laden was killed, a friend reminded me of something the Emperor says in Return of the Jedi: “Strike me down with all of your hatred,” he says, “and your journey towards the dark side will be complete.”