Five Torturous Steps to Hell

In a short and early section of the SSCI’s redacted summary of its torture report, we can read about the step-by-step descent from humanity to inhumanity, from the 20th century ideals of constitutionalism and human rights to 21st century reality, the reduction of living human beings to mere means in the hands of those who behave as if possessing absolute power. This descent was fast and short, just five steps in eleven months. 

Step 1. On Sept. 17, 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President George Bush signed a covert action Memorandum of Notification (MON) that granted the CIA unprecedented discretion to capture and detain persons it regarded as a threat. This was an abrupt departure from well-founded principles concerning powers and preconditions of arrest in times of war and peace and the principle of not giving powers of detention directly to intelligence agencies.

Step 2. By March 2002, the CIA had expanded its own detention authority beyond the language of the MON and instructed its personnel “that it would be appropriate to detain individuals who might not be high-value targets in their own right, but could provide information on high-value targets” (emphasis added). By taking this step, the CIA reduced human beings to mere means, in deviation from a foundational moral principle restated and reformulated time and again by Immanuel Kant and many others before and after him.

Step 3. In April 2002, two psychologists, referred to in the SSCI report as SWIGERT and DUNBAR but long ago named publicly as Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were contracted to improvise a new regime of “enhanced interrogation” techniques for CIA detainees. A reader cannot avoid a sense of helplessness and desperation when confronted with the report’s clinical description of the qualifications of the two psychologists. From page 21:

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Step 4. On July 24, 2002, CIA officials approved ten techniques proposed by the two contract psychologists for use in interrogations. Two days later, waterboarding was added to the package (page 36). Pages 40 to 45 of the SSCI report summary describe the use of Abu Zubaydah as a guinea pig the use of waterboarding combined with other torture techniques as designed by the two psychologists. If you want to read only six pages, read these. I will only quote an innocent passage about how it all started:

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Step 5. After those three weeks, in late August 2002, the psychologists were ready to conclude that the purpose of Abu Zubaydah’s torture had been achieved and the method thereby developed should be used as a template for future interrogations:

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This quote is the all-time low: a human being has been reduced to a mere means and broken down in order to prove that he does not possess any relevant information. This is Hell.

But my actual point comes only here: In the public debate following the release of the heavily redacted summary of the SSCI report, we remain at the lowest-of-the-low level. We acknowledge that our governments have committed torture but we are still debating its merits on its effectiveness, as if effectiveness provides justification — and as if anything goes as a benchmark of effectiveness, such as “learning” that the tortured individual did not possess information of relevance. Now that torture has been carefully documented and exposed, we hear it being inadvertently legitimised through public references to learning something “useful” through it. Yes, detaining rightly or wrongly suspected persons and subjecting them to systematic torture that breaks down their personality and any remaining mechanism of resistance can ultimately confirm that the person is not withholding any valuable information, irrespective whether he is a real terrorist or totally innocent. I repeat: we can confirm he is not withholding information. That is the problem with today’s discussion on the “usefulness” of torture. From a moral point of view, the “utility” defense of torture is repulsive. In the terms of law it amounts to shielding crimes committed and inciting new ones.

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” (Primo Levi) 

About the Author(s)

Martin Scheinin

Professor of Public International Law at the European University Institute, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism (2005-2011). Follow him on Twitter (@MartinScheinin).