President Obama and former Vice-President Cheney gave competing speeches on torture yesterday. In it, Cheney continued to offer the defense that torture saved lived. The idea is that through torture the CIA learned information that allowed them to spoil an attack that would have killed Americans.
However, his claim that torture saved lives is false.
First, by condoning and using torture, Cheney helped to remove the psychological barriers against torture. In exactly the same way that an administration that condoned and even encouraged the practice of having sex with children would increase the incidents of sex with children worldwide, an administration that condoned and encouraged the use of torture will lead to an increase in the number of tortures worldwide. Some of those tortures will result in death, and those deaths are deaths that Cheney and his friends caused.
Before we go further, we must also confront the claim that waterboarding and other 'harsh interrogation techniques' were not torture. Cheney's claim that Americans did not engage in torture has a lot in common with former president Bill Clinton’s claim that, "I did not have sex with that woman." Clinton, decided to redefine 'sex' to mean 'intercourse' and so his claim was true because he did not have intercourse with that woman (that we know of). Republicans rightfully ridiculed that defense (as did a lot of Democrats). However, Cheney is doing exactly the same thing when he asserts, "We did not torture those prisoners."
Actually, Cheney, yes, you did.
Here is a question I want somebody to ask Cheney at one of his speeches. "Mr. Vice-President. If a foreign government had captured American soldiers and waterboarded him repeatedly for information, would your Administration have been prepared to argue that those enemy agents are not guilty of torturing prisoners and consequently cannot be prosecuted for war crimes?"
Why does nobody ask these types of questions?
Another way that Cheney and the Bush Administration cost lives is by promoting an overall culture of abuse of prisoners. Torture is only possible in an institution that lowers the aversion to mistreating prisoners. The type of person who is capable of torturing prisoners or of standing by and doing nothing while others torture prisoners is the type of person who is more likely to abuse and mistreat prisoners himself. This need to weaken the aversion to mistreating prisoners then makes incidents such as Abu Graib more likely.
We have it on good authority that some abused prisoners died in American custody. It would be absurd to hold that all of them were guilty. These are lives that Cheney and his administration did not save.
Once again, we have to consider the effect of promoting a tolerance for the abuse of prisoners had outside of the American military. It no doubt encouraged and promoted the abuse of prisoners worldwide. We do not have any way to determine how many lives that will cost.
One of the effects of Abu Graib in specific, and news of the American maltreatment of prisoners in general, is to promote an overall hostility towards Americans. There can be little doubt that Abu Graib was a useful recruiting tool for those interested in doing harm to America. As a result of this scandal, we almost certainly had more people signing up to do harm to Americans, and firmed up the resolve of those who had already signed up.
We can reasonably expect that some of these people not only tried but succeeded in killing American soldiers. Those soldiers who were killed because Cheney made it easier for the enemy to recruit soldiers are lives that Cheney did not save. In fact, there are soldiers who would be alive today if not for Cheney’s culture of mistreating prisoners.
In this case, a Vice President more concerned with preventing the mistreatment of prisoners would have saved lives and would have helped to bring the war to a more successful conclusion more quickly.
This culture of prisoner mistreatment that Cheney promoted not only promoted enemy recruitment, it also cost America potential allies. In just the same way that it encouraged some to take up arms against America, it almost certainly pushed others from neutrality to hostility. Perhaps they contributed money to the opposition, or they encouraged (or at least became less likely to speak out against) anti-American actions they knew about. It likely pushed some people from alliance to neutrality, simply convincing them not to get involved whereas they would have otherwise cooperated with Americans.
In all of this, Cheney still continues to insist that the benefit came from the fact that the Administration learned some piece of information that prevented an attack. Yet, in all of this he neglects to consider the possibility that he promoted such hatred and hostility that there can well be a new attack being planned by people who otherwise would not have been motivated to attack America. Or the possibility that a person who learns of the attack will remain silent because they have lost sympathy for America and gained sympathy for the terrorists.
Cheney's actions only appear justified to the most myopic analysis – to the person who cannot look even a fraction of an inch beyond the most immediate links in the chains of cause of effect.