The Return of Torture

President Trump wants to torture people.  Whether he will succeed in bringing back “enhanced interrogation techniques,” black sites, and extraordinary rendition remains to be seen.  Many people are reassured by General Hayden’s remark that if Trump wants someone waterboarded, he will have to bring his own bucket.  I am not one of them.  Trump would be happy to bring his own electrodes.  Only he won’t have to.  There may be those in the CIA, as Hayden claims, that will refuse to torture people the way they did in the Bush administration, fearing that they will be subject to criminal prosecution in the future; but there will always be those willing to step up and take their place, in part because they wish to please their superiors, and in part because they truly believe it is the right thing to do.

Of course, there will be those who willingly engage in torture simply because they like it, because cruelty is fun.  But most need to feel morally justified in what they are doing.  And once that moral justification is in hand, they can inflict pain with a clear conscience.  To that end, torture is justified on either utilitarian grounds or on retributive grounds.  Regarding the former, torture is said to be useful in promoting the greater good.  The phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” expresses this point of view.  The idea is that information is extracted through torture that will prevent innocent people from being harmed.  As for the second justification, those being tortured are said to deserve it.

Most of the time, both the utilitarian and retributive justifications are assumed to be present.  That is, the person being tortured has information that is useful and that person is evil.  After all, anyone who had information about some imminent terrorist attack would not likely be an innocent.  However, many of those who favor torture believe that either justification may be sufficient on its own. Regarding utility as the sole justification, John Yoo, the author of the “Torture Memos,” said that a child’s testicles could legally be crushed to extract information from his father.  Presumably, the child does not deserve to have his testicles crushed, but the father might decide to talk once he saw what was happening to his son, giving information that would be useful.  And Antonin Scalia believed that only cruel and unusual punishment was unconstitutional, not cruel and unusual methods of extracting information.  In his view, even American citizens convicted of no crime could be tortured for the sake of extracting information, provided the pain was not being inflicted as punishment.  Presumably, therefore, reporters who refuse to name their sources could legally have those names beaten out of them.

By the same token, many favor torture as punishment even if no information is to be extracted.  We find this in the expression, “Hanging’s too good for him,” and in the delight some people take in the idea that a convicted criminal will be ass-raped behind bars.  They want the criminal to suffer more than that which is entailed by incarceration or capital punishment alone.

This last should not surprise us, because the popular concept of Hell is the ultimate expression of the desire to have people suffer for retributive purposes only.  The suffering of the damned was never justified on the grounds that they would eventually tell God what he wanted to know, but only because they deserved to burn forever in the eternal fire.  Living as we do in an increasingly secular society, it is easy to forget that even today, 58% of Americans believe in Hell.

Now, if a person believes in Hell, then he believes that the suffering of the damned is righteous and approved by God.  I suspect there is a strong correlation between people that believe in Hell and people that think torture is justified, although I am aware of no research in support of this intuition.  Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture is justified, but whether that group and the 58% who believe in Hell correlate, I cannot be sure.  Of course, if there is such a correlation, the question remains as to whether people approve of torture because they believe in Hell or people believe in Hell because they approve of torture.  I assume the causality goes both ways:  the idea of Hell came into existence because people believed in torture, and then their belief in Hell came to reinforce and sanctify that belief in torture.

In light of all this, with so many Americans believing in torture, in this world and in the next, it would not surprise me if President Trump gets his way in bringing it back.

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