Tortuous Logic: Bin Laden's Death Should Not Be Used as a Pretext To Divide the Public on Torture

With the death of Osama bin Laden, torture apologists are having a field day, claiming that the al Qaeda leader's demise was made possible by the kind of illegal interrogation techniques championed by the Bush Administration.

I decided to run this idea by one of our clients, Abdoulaye, who knows more about torture than any of the talking heads on cable TV. A native of the Ivory Coast, he was brutally tortured and forced to watch as his wife and brother were killed in front of him. Abdoulaye fled to the United States where he was granted asylum.

I asked Abdoulaye what he thought of the assertion that torture is sometimes necessary to elicit critical intelligence.

"It is very sad to see prominent Americans taking advantage of this moment to defend torture," Abdoulaye said softly. "I say this not just because of my own experience, but because of the thousands of people across the world who are tortured every day and look to the United States for hope. When Americans defend torture, it is a very sad day for humanity."

Sad indeed. Even as democratic revolts are underway across the Middle East -- revolts sparked by the brutal repression of regimes that used torture as an instrument of political control -- a debate is being revived that should have been put to rest.

The arguments against torture are myriad and overwhelming. Start with the supposed intelligence gathering value of torture. Here's what Andrea Prasow, a senior U.S. counterterrorism counsel, says, summing up the views of many experts:

Whether torture can produce some truthful information has never been the right question. It can. But even if the victim of torture does provide some accurate information, there is no way to sift the truth from lies produced as the detainee merely tries to get interrogators to stop. There's no way to know which lead is worth pursuing -- risking human life and limited resources -- and which should be disregarded. And by resorting to torture, experienced interrogators report, less truthful information can be produced than if traditional, lawful techniques were used.

The political repercussions of using or endorsing torture are profound. As the United States learned -- or should have learned -- during the Abu Ghraib fallout, political trust and respect are difficult to earn and easy to lose.

As to the profound physical, psychological and emotional damage endured by torture survivors, a mountain of evidence has been amassed over the last few decades that few would have the stomach to read.

So why does the debate over torture continue?

The answer lies more in the realm of psychology than in criminal justice. Torture apologists appeal to our collective fear. What if horrible acts of violence can be prevented by torturing prisoners who have already committed such acts? Or conversely, what if our reluctance to use torture on presumed or proven murderers results in a catastrophic terrorist attack?

This is the argument made by former Bush Administration officials like John Woo. And at first blush it sounds convincing.

But we must force ourselves to exit the arena of psychology and emotion and return to the domain of fact, self-interest and morality. And when we do, we arrive firmly at the conclusion that torture is neither an effective interrogation device nor is it consistent with our political interests or our deepest values.

"Torture has no place in civilized nations," Abdoulaye said. "I hope that one day everyone, regardless of their political beliefs, will see that this is true."

We are united by our abhorrence of the crimes of Osama bin Laden. Let us be equally united in our rejection of torture.