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An Interrogation of Our Own Motives: The Terror of Torture

03/04/2015 12:28 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Two years into his thirty-month sentence, former CIA agent John Kiriakou was released from prison on Feb. 3, 2015 and remains under house arrest. Kiriakou was the first CIA official to be punished in relation to the Bush administration torture program, but not for having committed acts of torture himself, rather for exposing the government's use of waterboarding as a part of standard interrogation protocol. The irony of this punishment and its underlying message are clear -- according to our government, torture is not a crime, but exposing it is.

Torture is clearly prohibited in Article Eight of the United States Bill of Rights, and abolished under international law in Article Five of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; yet it remains in practice. It violates our basic rights as human beings, our morality as a society, and our most fundamental American values; yet somehow, it is still in practice. Domestic and international law are clear -- there are no exceptions about the abolition of torture, yet it is still widely used. To date, 157 nations have ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture, yet over 140 nations still practice torture.

Torture is a complicated subject. Is it justified? Is it necessary? Is it relative? Such a complex issue can be simplified when we bring the aspect of humanity of this heinous practice back into the picture. Rather than focus on the wrongdoings of a criminal, we need to focus on the humanity of the situation and the fundamental human rights that the use of torture violates.

Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, supports the view that torture not only should be, but also can be abolished in practice universally, and that it will lead to a better and more productive society. Philosophy scholar Jeff McMahan takes a similar position, but in an interview with The New York Times amends his view that torture is always immoral by claiming that it can be "justified" when it is used to extract information from a criminal. Beyond the large blanket of ambiguity this would cast as a footnote to laws on torture, this belief that torture is an effective and time-efficient interrogation strategy is a misconception held by many. Scholars, former interrogation specialists, and government officials have all proved that this is far from true, rather that torture is an unnecessarily brutal and ineffective method of interrogation.

Even in an era before the establishment of universal human rights, eighteenth century philosopher Cesare Beccaria had the right idea in denouncing the use of torture as an inhumane and ineffective form of interrogation, stating that even the guiltless "will admit guilt" if he or she believes it will make the pain stop. Ali Soufan, former FBI special agent and interrogator of al-Qaeda, denounces the use of torture in agreement with Beccaria's theory, having seen it play out in real life.

In fact, not only will criminals intentionally give misinformation to stop the abuse, but excessive physical and mental torture can cause brain damage that permanently alters the prisoner's memories of the events and information he or she is supposed to recount. Neurobiological evidence shows that tortured prisoners are equally likely to recall false memories as they are to recall true memories when being interrogated with torturous tactics. This form of violence is not only ineffective as a method of interrogation, but also causes such great cognitive and neurological damage that a person subjected to such inhumanity will not only lose their sanity, but can also lose their sense of self.

Soufan is correct: violence and torture are the ways of groups like al-Qaeda, not the ways of the free and democratic nation that is the United States. In light of recent reports, the ongoing daily abuses of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and the intentionally hushed release of Kiriakou we must question, as a nation founded upon a strong value in human rights, our use of such violence as a tactic for "national security" and "foreign policy."

No crime warrants fighting violence with violence. We cannot lose our sense of humanity, our compassion, or our empathy in an effort to fight crime, especially if we hope to ultimately create a peaceful world free of violence and malice. How can we expect to establish justice and harmony when we constantly fight violence with violence? How can we expect to protect and promote universal human rights if we are not upholding them ourselves? It is time to practice what we preach. Torture is un-American, but more than that, it is simply immoral and inhumane.

The torture and killing of an American soldier is never justified. By the same principle, the torture and killing of any soldier or criminal, whether a wrongly convicted felon or a violent jihadist, is never justified. Everyone has their motives, but whether right or wrong, these motives need to be set aside to make way for our shared humanity to be seen and realized. We need to see criminals as humans before we begin to spill their blood -- the very blood that makes us all human.