Countering claims by some politicians that torture is an acceptable part of the fight against terrorism, experts in ethics and interrogation say that the practice is both immoral and ineffective.
“Torture is an intrinsic evil, an action that is an evil no matter the circumstances or the consequences,” said Prof. Joseph Capizzi, an associate professor of Moral Theology at The Catholic University of America.
“Often these arguments begin with the assumption that we need torture to get information. Most people in the intelligence community tell us that it’s false,” he told CNA.
But torture’s ineffectiveness in itself is not why the Church opposes it, he clarified. Instead, torture ought to be rejected simply because it is wrong.
“No matter what the circumstances or the consequences are, acts like torture can never be justifiable, can never be good.”
The question of torture has been raised during the election season. During the Feb. 6 Republican debates, candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was asked to defend previous statements on waterboarding. He responded that he does not believe the practice of waterboarding meets the definition of torture, but is instead a form of “enhanced interrogation” because it is not the equivalent of losing organs or one’s life.
Frontrunner Donald Trump, who has promoted the use of torture in the past, also told the debate audience he supported the use of waterboarding “and more.” The day after the debate, in a statement to CNN he said that “torture works.”
In response to the statements, Human Rights First, a nonpartisan international human rights organization, on Feb. 17 released a letter written by former interrogators who have worked in various federal agencies including the armed forces, the CIA, the FBI and other groups.
They detailed their opposition to torture practices and enhanced interrogation on practical grounds: the practices provide less trustworthy information than other forms of interrogation and their use by the U.S. can serve as a recruitment tool for extremist organizations.
The former interrogators urged presidential candidates to uphold current laws banning torture should they become elected.
Capizzi further explained the religious and ethical reasons to oppose torture.
While some Catholic rulers or theologians may have felt that the use of force may be permissible, the professor said, there has been “a longstanding prohibition against torture” from within the Church since the Middle Ages.
That teaching has been added to and supported throughout the centuries. The Church teaches that prohibiting torture is a matter of human dignity, he said.
“Everyone’s been created in the image and likeness of God,” Capizzi stressed, and this teaching is much more than simply a “sweet” sentiment — it is immensely powerful when taken seriously.
“If we say that people are actually bearing the image and likeness of God, it means we have to respond to them in a way that is appropriate to the image and likeness of God,” he said. Torture “requires a direct violation of the dignity of the person.”
The Church teaches that to respect the dignity of other people, even prisoners or detainees, one must not treat them as instruments or tools for one’s own goals.
“We can never treat people simply as a means to our ends, they are an end in themselves,” Capizzi emphasized. “Torture always involves instrumentalizing somebody.”
Raha Wala, senior counsel of defense and intelligence for Human Rights First, said he is not surprised that many Americans support the use of torture, given its depiction in media.
However, he told CNA, “It’s important to listen to the experts, rather than the pundits.”
“(T)he experts on this are clear that torture is ineffective: there are better ways to gather intelligence.”
In the Human Rights First letter, the former interrogators — some of whom have interviewed top terror suspects for United States intelligence organizations — explained that the goal of interrogation is to build “a rapport” with a detainee and to understand him or her as a person. This approach encourages willing cooperation. It can reveal a detainee’s life story which “can be incredibly useful for understanding terrorist organizations, and detecting and ultimately thwarting terrorist plots.”
In contrast, they said, torture can provide less accurate and trustworthy information. In this way, it actually harms intelligence gathering and long-term work against terrorism and other national threats.
“If you talk to the professionals, they’ll say that torture — causing pain and suffering to an individual — actually compromises their memory, disrupts their ability to recall information and transmit it accurately to the interrogator, and often causes them to provide false information if they think that’s what the interrogator wants to hear,” Wala elaborated.
The use of torture by American forces can also be a recruitment tool extremist organizations use in propaganda, the former interrogators said.
“It is a hard truth, but we note that a large proportion of the fighters who opposed the U.S. in Iraq did so expressly as a result of the U.S. use of ‘enhanced interrogation,’ which the entire world recognizes as, quite simply, torture,” said the interrogators’ letter.
Wala said that he had heard similar explanations from former extremists. He noted that the Islamic State group is “reportedly dressing prisoners in orange jumpsuits, waterboarding them, as part of a propaganda effort.”
“I think it’s really important in the struggle against terrorism for the United States to as clearly and persuasively distinguish its actions from those of the terrorist groups that we are seeking to ultimately defeat,” he commented.
Under current laws, the U.S. already has the guidelines available to do just that, Wala said.
“It’s been clear for decades that torture is universally prohibited,” he said. He noted international rules against torture in the Geneva Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. There are also federal laws banning the use of torture by U.S. forces that were passed with support from both political parties.
“Even then Congress came together after the abuses of Abu Ghraib, and passed legislation prohibiting cruel inhuman or degrading treatment,” Wala added. A 2015 law limited interrogation to techniques listed in the Army Field Manual, “which explicitly prohibits waterboarding and other forms of abuse.”
“This is not a partisan issue,” Wala said. “Any policymaker or candidate who is suggesting a return to these tactics is essentially going against clear domestic and international law.”