Americans love Jack Bauer. Kieffer Sutherland plays this tough American on the hit series “24,” a patriot who will stop at nothing to protect his country. Bauer routinely breaks the rules, including violence and intimidation, in order to stop at the last minute “ticking bombs” from destroying human life. The Jack Bauer phenomena should be kept in mind when we consider recent CIA revelations about torture, its purpose, and how rare it is at the hands of the U.S. government.
Torture is the use of extreme, purposeful physical or psychological violence, in this case by a government. It is clear from this definition that some of the things that have been criticized as torture in the CIA report and elsewhere really are not torture. What we’ve learned is that some of these tactics are ridiculous, some are pornographic, some are ugly, and others are clearly torture.
What is the purpose of torture? Some regimes, like the Nazis and Imperial Japan, used extreme physical suffering as laboratory experiments on unwilling human subjects. Torture has also long been used as a form of punishment for past deeds, from the Roman Empire to the prison camps of Mao and his successors.
Related to torture as punishment is the use of torture by a government as a tool of social control. Regimes can instill fear across their own populations and thereby keep the masses in line by the threat and use of torture.
The recent Brazil report on torture in that country suggests that at times a purpose of incarceration and torture was to instill fear outside the prison walls. Certainly, at a much more dramatic level, torture has been used to terrorize the general citizenry by the Saddam Hussein and North Korean regimes.
Some would argue that torture, or the threat of torture, can actually be part of a strategy of deterrence—a way to deter regime opponents and occupied people from challenging the status quo. This appears to have been true of Soviet military forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and to have motivated some Japanese middle management in occupied territories during the 1930s-40s.
Torture of enemy prisoners can also be used to attempt to generate a rally-round-the-flag effect at home. Hanoi diabolically mixed torture with modern media to “expose” U.S. war criminals via broadcast, in part to buttress its legitimacy. More recently, the Islamic State’s gruesome tactics are designed to instill fear abroad and generate allegiance, at least from angry young men, at home.
All of this brings us back to the Jack Bauer effect and the CIA report. Bauer’s actions to stop a ticking bomb stand in sharp contrast to all of the above uses of torture. In the days after 9/11, the main justification for enhanced interrogation techniques was to interdict any imminent attacks.
The vast majority of Americans are sympathetic to extraordinary efforts to defuse ticking bomb scenarios in those rare instances when the intelligence is needed NOW! In such cases, many Americans are willing to have our national security personnel do whatever necessary to save the day.
Why is this the case? Why are law-abiding, peace loving Americans willing to rough up the bad guys in the ticking bomb scenario? It is not thuggishness nor is it revenge, even if we feel the bad guys deserve punishment. We support dramatic action against the bad guys to save human life, and our conscience is clean—in extraordinary circumstances—because we know that we did not cause the violence, we are just responding to it. It is the terrorist who has created the ticking bomb scenario by staging an attack on American citizens—he is the war criminal, he is the brute.
In the ticking bomb scenario all moral approbation falls on him. This is similar to police shooting an armed murderer who will not surrender and continues to threaten others: it is the murderer who is responsible for his own death, not the valiant public servant.
This brings us back to the CIA reports. Ticking bomb scenarios are rare. Certainly in the first few months following 9/11, perhaps the entire first year, there was tremendous justifiable concern about other attacks. Likewise, on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where suicide bombings and attacks originating in mosques and civilian centers violated every conceivable law of war, there may have been some instances where rapid, dramatic interrogation procedures were warranted.
But the CIA report, and previous government documents, indicate that enhanced interrogation techniques continued to be used long after ticking bomb scenarios had faded from the scene. In many cases, the individual being interrogated was a bloodthirsty killer and enemy of the U.S. but it did not take more than a few weeks or months for that individual’s information to be stale. It is hard to justify torture in such cases, despite the fact that we are talking about a relatively small scale of hundreds of cases (unlike the gulags of our enemies).
True, Americans want to save civilian lives as well as protect our troops on the battlefield, and we want intelligence and appreciate the value of interrogation. But, reading this report in the context of other revelations going back all the way to Abu Ghraib suggests that action officers, including prison guards and interrogators, went beyond intelligence gathering to punishment and even what appears at times to be perverse self-gratification.
In the end, it is ironic that the U.S. will be beat up on this issue by Damascus, Tehran, Pyongyang, Caracas, Moscow, and other gross human rights violators. We should not care too much what those rogues think of us. We should be proud that we have not institutionalized torture as a tool for punishment, fear, and social control.
Although we feel some gratification that the bad guys get their just deserts on the TV screen, we really do not want to unleash a horde of Jack Bauers on the world. Thus, we need to consider our own values and institutionalize, as thought leaders as diverse as Newt Gingrich and Alan Dershowitz have argued, protocols for how we will handle ticking bomb scenarios in ways that align with our national ethos and our need for intelligence.
Eric Patterson is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and author of Ending Wars Well and Ethics at War’s End.
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