When former vice-President Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and the rest of the Fox News crowd, and the like defend torture as a legitimate practice, they are defending the practice of torturing American servicemen, American citizens taken captive in foreign countries, and everybody else on the planet.
If torture is a legitimate act and condemning those who engage in torture is not legitimate, then the torture of an American soldier is a legitimate act and the condemnation of those who torture American soldiers is not legitimate.
One of the defining qualities of moral claims is that they are meant to be universal. If it is wrong for a person to perform an act in a particular situation, then it is wrong for anybody to perform a relevantly similar act in a relevantly similar situation.
We still need to work out the details of a “relevantly similar act” and “relevantly similar situation.” However, one of the things that we know about this principle of universality is that there is no room for proper names.
In other words, it is not a appropriately universal to say that, “All people who might have information about a probable attack against America or American interests abroad may be tortured.” A claim that those who might have information on attacks against America may be tortured, but not those who might have information on attacks against any other country may not be would be an example of moral hypocrisy.
And hypocrites, whether they be hypocritical vice-Presidents, talk-show hosts, or nation states, are not moral leaders. They are, in fact, immoral.
If it is legitimate for Americans to torture those who might have information on attacks against the United States, then it is legitimate for any country to torture people who might have information on attacks against that government. Where American soldiers or American citizens might have information about such an attack, torture would then be legitimate.
At follows as a matter of straight-forward moral reasoning that Cheney and others are authorizing the torture of American soldiers and citizens abroad who might have information on an attack against a foreign country.
It is all relevant to note that every one of us might have information on attacks against another country. Every tourist, every reporter, every American business representative who travels abroad might have information relating to an attack on a foreign government. Thanks to Cheney and others who ally with him, foreign governments now have moral permission to torture those individuals.
Furthermore, we cannot use torture as a way of distinguishing between the good guys and the bad guys any more – not if torture is (said to be) a legitimate practice. If we accept Cheney’s argument, we cannot point to other countries and say, “They torture people,” as a reason to say they are worthy of condemnation.
Cheney and his kind have made torture a legitimate state practice.
Finally, it is wholly selfish and, itself, morally unjustified to be concerned with the welfare of Americans. To say that certain human rights belong only to Americans (such as a right not to be tortured or to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment) is to say that non-Americans are sub-human.
Besides, as I argued in the past – in a manner consistent with the arguments written into the Declaration of Independence – true moral rights can neither be legitimately granted or taken away by the state. If the U.S. government can legitimately take away a right from any human being, then it can legitimately take that same right away from any other human being – including American citizens.
We need to decide whether the right to a fair and speedy trial, and a right against cruel and unusual punishments, is a moral right, or if it is a mere gift of the state. If it is the latter, then the state may legitimately take away that right even from you and me without just cause for complaint. If it is the former, then the government cannot legitimately take away that right even from those who are not American citizens without committing a moral crime.
Trying to have it both ways is, itself, to commit a moral crime. Neither nation states that behave in such a manner, nor the people who defend these hypocritical practices, can be sensibly thought of as moral leaders. They are advocates and proponents instead of immorality.
Do you accept that there is a universal permission for nation states to torture those who might have information on an attack? Then you support the torture of American military personnel and citizens travelling or working abroad.