The torture "debate": Torture is still immoral and ineffective. Bin Laden's death doesn't change that.

The torture "debate": Torture is still immoral and ineffective. Bin Laden's death doesn't change that.

The torture "debate": Torture is still immoral and ineffective. Bin Laden's death doesn't change that.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 4 2011 6:22 PM

Still Stupid, Still Wrong, Still Immoral

Why the death of Osama Bin Laden shouldn't change our views about torture—or of the people who approved it.

Elsewhere in Slate, Jack Shafer makes the case for releasing the Bin Laden photo, William Saletan explains why the  human-shield myth was a bad idea, Dave Weigel talks about how Osama's death  proved everyone right, John Dickerson looks at  Obama's poll numbers, Chris Beam explains the  mood in Pakistan, Heather Murphy compiles a slide show of the elite Navy SEALs, and Maura O'Connor looks at how  the war still continues in Afghanistan. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit  The Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up  here.

Illustration of an interrogation room.

Do we have to have another big national debate about torture? Really, do we have to? Headlines like this one, in the New York Times no less, inform us that the Osama Bin Laden raid has "revived" the arguments over the "value of torture." That's strange, because until now, the only people "reviving" the debate over the wonders of torture were the same people whose names are actually on the torture memos or who were in the room when torture methods were being approved. This does not constitute a "debate." A better term would be self-serving propaganda.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Still, the subject of illegally torturing people for information appears to be open for discussion yet again. So before I rehearse my argument, allow me to suggest that the only reason we are having this discussion at all is because we have tortured people. That's the problem with doing stupid things: You spend the rest of your life trying to convince yourself that maybe they weren't so stupid after all. Had we not water-boarded prisoners eight years ago, nobody would be making the argument that water-boarding "worked." The reason you don't order up torture in the first place is that once you do, it stays on the menu for years.


Given that—as yet—nobody really knows for certain whether evidence extracted from prisoners through torture ultimately led to the capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden, a lot of the folks jabbering about torture are talking in similarly pointless rhetorical circles. What they are saying chiefly amounts to variations upon the same assertion: "We tortured people. Later, we caught Bin Laden. Ergo, torture works."

In fact, the most interesting torture debates of the past few days have actually come from people debating themselves on the truth behind this simple syllogism. See, for instance, Donald Rumsfeld of Tuesday morning debating Donald Rumsfeld of Tuesday night on whether torture led to the capture of Bin Laden.

Donald Rumsfeld of Tuesday morning: "The United States Department of Defense did not do waterboarding for interrogation purposes to anyone. It is true that some information that came from normal interrogation approaches at Guantanamo did lead to information that was beneficial in this instance. But it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding."

Donald Rumsfeld of Tuesday nightbegged to differ, however: "I'm told there was some confusion today on some programs … suggesting that I indicated that no one who was waterboarded at Guantanamo provided any information on this. That's just not true. What I said was no one was waterboarded at Guantanamo by the U.S. military. … Three people were waterboarded by the CIA … and then later brought to Guantanamo. In fact, as you point out, the information that came from those individuals was critically important."

When asked whether torture led definitively to information about Bin Laden's whereabouts, everyone says pretty much the same thing: "After we tortured people, some other stuff happened. Later we learned some useful things." Then they insert their personal opinions about causation.

Here's Rep. Peter King's formulation of that approach: "[W]e obtained information several years ago, vital information about the courier for Obama [sic]. We obtained that information through waterboarding. And so for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, to say that it should be stopped and never used again—we got vital information which directly led to us bin Laden." That isn't entirely inconsistent with the ever-changing AP account suggesting that many months after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded, he may have divulged some useful information. One can certainly conclude from this—or not! That's the beauty and absurdity of this debate—that the initial water-boarding led to the eventual release of that information. It doesn't mean the water-boarding caused the information to be released. It may even have slowed the release of useful information.