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Torture, Immoral and Ineffective: The Right Response to bin Laden’s Death

By Heather Rice - Posted on 05 May 2011

Claims that the bin Laden raid was based on information provided by detainees has revived the debate over the effectiveness of the former Administration’s “enhanced interrogation program” (i.e. torture).

A number of high profile officials invested in the former Administration’s torture program have jumped on the opportunity to use Osama’s death as an opportunity to redeem their grave missteps. Former lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel, Jonathan Yoo, implied in the National Review that bin Laden’s death was made possible by intelligence gained through waterboarding and that President Obama’s success is due “to the tough decisions taken by the Bush administration.”

Unfortunately, not only are such claims made without shame, they are made without merit.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council put it plainly: “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003.” Whitehouse press secretary, Jay Carney, also dismissed such claims, stating, “It strains credulity to suggest that a piece of information that may or may not have been gathered eight years ago was directly responsible for bin Laden’s death.”

Osama’s death is not an opportunity for the United States torture program to be redeemed. Torture is wrong, without exception. As an evangelical, I believe God created all of us in His image. Therefore, torturing another human being is a disgrace in any circumstance.

While I wish the moral argument against torture alone served to end the debate, some are willing to dismiss morality in favor of efficacy. Those people should understand that it’s not about choosing between the “tough” decision and the “right” decision. Here, the right decision is the smart one. In a 2007 letter to the troops, General Petraeus stated that, "Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary."

Standard interrogation practices can and do lead to actionable intelligence – persistence in the use of standard interrogation procedures is ultimately what led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

John Yoo wrapped up his piece in the National Review by asking, “imagine what would have happened if the Obama administration had been running things back in 2002–2008.” He then proposes that there would have been no enhanced-interrogation program and thus no mosaic of intelligence leading us to bin Laden.

Well, perhaps there would have been no enhanced-interrogation program, but it’s absurd to claim we would not have gained intelligence leading us to bin Laden. Let’s consider, what would have happened if our nation’s leaders had chosen to abide by the law and morality in 2002-2008.

Imagine if we had not lost the good will of many who could have helped us locate bin Laden years earlier. Imagine if the disturbing images of torture captured at Abu Graib did not exist and were not used as a major recruiting tool by al Qaeda. Imagine if we had not gained false information from desperate prisoners who would say anything to end their abuse. Imagine if America was not still cleaning up the mess of our tarnished past.

In 2005, Senator John McCain spoke out about his experience as a prisoner of war, stating that, “Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them unto death. But every one of us--every single one of us--knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them.  That faith was indispensable not only to our survival, but to our attempts to return home with honor.”
Senator McCain’s statement reminds me of Proverbs 25:21-22, which calls us as believers to treat even our enemies with a certain degree of respect and dignity. “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

No, bin Laden’s death is not a chance for vindication for our nation’s past use of torture. It is an opportunity for repentance. As believers, may we turn from fear. May we live up to our calling to treat others – even our enemies – with dignity.

I join with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in calling for the establishment of a government-sponsored Commission of Inquiry to let the public know the full extent and consequences of the torture program. Only then will we learn the right lesson from our disgraceful past, and truly turn the page on torture.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture ( is one of our partner organizations.

Which is worse, not that either is justified: using torture against a wartime enemy (Bush) or shooting and killing an unarmed enemy in the face (Obama)?

I agree that torture is wrong. I also think we can never know what may or may not have been when we play the "imagine what would have happen" game. Often a phrase that is added after "imagine what would happen" is "all things being equal." However, all things never remain equal or the same, so who knows given different responses to situations what would or would not happen had we used torture or not, or chosen to abide or not abide by law and morality. I suppose one attraction to imagining our own conceived futures is we control the actors, responses, and outcomes. Alas, we are not so god-like, and as one who should know has said, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." We ought to keep to the power of Christ's example, and not get caught up in the pragmatic arguments for or against political efficacy. Imagine what would happen if we actually lived by those words . . .smile.

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