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Morality and Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

The issue of the Bush Administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques involve several inter-related questions.

There is, first of all, the matter of morality. Critics of enhanced interrogation techniques have taken to saying that Americans don’t torture, period – meaning in this instance that we do not engage in coercive interrogation techniques ranging from sleep deprivation to prolonged loud noise and/or bright lights to waterboarding. Anyone who holds the opposite view is a moral cretin and guilty of “arrant inhumanity.” Or so the argument goes.

But this posture begins to come apart under examination. For one thing, the issue of “torture” itself needs to be put in a moral context and on a moral continuum. Waterboarding is a very nasty technique for sure – but it is considerably different (particularly in the manner administered by the CIA) than, say, mutilation with electric drills, rape, splitting knees, or forcing a terrorist to watch his children suffer and die in order to try to elicit information from him. Waterboarding is a technique that has been routinely used in the training of some U.S. military personnel – and which the journalist Christopher Hitchens endured. I certainly wouldn’t want to undergo waterboarding – but while a very harsh technique, it is one that was applied in part because it would do far less damage to a person than other techniques. It is also surely relevant that waterboarding was not used randomly and promiscuously, but rather on three known terrorists. And of the thousands of unlawful combatants captured by the U.S., fewer than 100 were detained and questioned in the CIA program, according to Michael Hayden, President Bush’s last CIA director, and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey – and of those, fewer than one-third were subjected to any of the techniques discussed in the memos on enhanced interrogation.

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