When Dick Cheney and his minions defend torture saying, “it worked,” they are channeling Joseph Stalin, according to Andrew Brown in the American Conservative. “One of the first disconcerting things to discover when you inquire into the interrogation habits of the KGB” Brown writes, “is that their practices weren’t defined as torture at all.” Leaving aside the infamous waterboarding, practices like sleep deprivation and stress positions were cornerstones of both the KGB’s terror and that of Bush and Cheney.
Of course torture “works” in getting information, Brown concedes, but that information is inherently unreliable. The confessions extracted from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other targets of U.S. torture have the same evidentiary value as confessions that Trotskyists were responsible for sabotaging the Soviet economy in the 1930s. Brown writes, “Torture is a means of forcing people to lie to us, under circumstances that compel us to believe them, because otherwise we would have to face the truth about ourselves.”
The arguments made for torture, including the ones made to the continuation of torture policies under President Obama, are couched in the language of pragmatism. “Pragmatism is not a substitute for philosophical rigor, however,” David Schimke wrote for the latest issue of Utne Reader, “and it cannot be used as an excuse to ignore the past.” In this case, an absolute abolition of torture is both pragmatic and moral, since torture cannot reliably deliver the truth and undoubtedly serves to hurt the U.S. moral standing in the world.