Barack Obama’s first major official action (and campaign promise) was to close down the prison at Guantánamo Bay, along with an apparently existing network of CIA prisons around the world. It is widely assumed that torture goes on in these prisons, though the congressional order will be sealed for a long time.
Here’s the conundrum. There are clearly humanitarian issues at stake here with respect to the human life and dignity that I believe to be immutable. However, there’s the very cruel reality that there is a group of persons who are life taking, and there needs to exist effective ways of dealing with that threat.
It seems apparent that coercion through physical intimidation or force (an insanely mild way of putting “torture”) is effective in its information gathering prowess. However, what kind of a society are we that we are not willing to find the most humane alternative to torture?
One argument for the allowance of torture is that this one presumed bad person is being sacrificed for the salvation of potentially hundreds or thousands of “good” people. What is the cost of such a tradeoff? It is simply that any one life is expendable to advance the cause of any other group of lives. This is not sensible to me, since that places a particular value on each individual human life that we think can be counted like beans with which to barter.
Additionally, in the particular paradigm in which we are the ones who are counted among the presumed “good,” this does not affect our lives directly. Yet in a paradigm shift, the same logic could be applied to bring our own lives and loved ones under the same conditions that our fellow humans may well be facing in these internment camps.
As with the standards that are in place for research on human subjects, which undoubtedly impede the progress of science, there are standards that exist for the treatment of political prisoners. It is our ethical and humane duty to conduct our activities well within these standards.
I do not know what the solution is. I believe that, in times of war, there should be additional measures to hold and try suspected war criminals. They should get their day in court, as unfortunately this is the only way to protect those who are, in fact, being detained improperly. But they should not be held indefinitely without trial, and they simply should not be tortured, mentally or physically. The Geneva Convention speaks toward this in an internationally recognized way, though this does not necessarily mean that it is “right,” in the absolute sense of the word.