The killing of Bin Laden has opened up the debate on the value of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (a.k.a. torture).
At the very start, it seems that people are "seeing what they want to see" in the evidence. Those who want to see it as having made a positive contribution look at the evidence and see what they want to see. So do those who say that it doesn't work.
As a matter of fact, no controlled experiments were conducted in which people were randomly assigned to "enhanced interrogation techniques" versus "alternative interrogation techniques" to reveal which group revealed the most and most useful information. The form of evidence that we have violates all of the rules of proof in a scientific sense, allowing room for all of the problems with non-scientific data such as confirmation bias - where agents assert that data that supports their position is solid and anything that contradicts their position is ignored as an anomaly.
But the issue in the ethics of "enhanced interrogation techniques" is not tied up in the question of whether or not it "works".
Murdering your spouse and disposing of her body - and getting away with it - may very well "work" if one's objective is to end a marriage while keeping all the property. But the question of the moral legitimacy of the practice is not tied up in whether or not it does (or could) "work" in a given situation. That is not the moral issue.
Raping a child and threatening to kill her family might be a successful way to rape a child. Threatening to kill her family might actually "work". Does it provide a justification?
Two criticisms can be raised against this.
One is that the Americans who engaged in torture were doing it for a noble reason, as opposed to the people in these examples. However, what counts as a noble reason? Is it or is it not the case that eliminating torture is a noble reason? Is it not the case that reducing or eliminating the all-to-common practice of government leaders torturing people they bring into custody a noble cause?
We judge people not only on the causes the pursue, but the methods they are willing to pursue to obtain those ends.
A person wishes to obtain a heart transplant for his dying wife. A noble cause. So, he kills her identical twin sister in such a way that the heart can be transplanted.
At best, this criticism begs the question and assumes that the elimination of torture is not, itself, a noble reason for action.
The other is that these two counter-examples involve attacks against innocent people. The Bin Laden informants were not innocent.
But who was tortured? And how often? And how many of them were innocent?
I'm not just asking about how many and how often American interrogators tortured people - and who among them proved to be innocent. I am asking about how many and how often people get tortured.
Because accepting and arguing for torture - being a culture that embraces torture and that tells other governments they may embrace torture as well - will undoubtedly result in a lot more torture in the world. We can well trust that those who engage in torture think they have a good reason to do so - just as those who fly airplanes into sky scrapers think they have a good reason for doing so.
So, do we tell the world to embrace this practice and to feel free to engage in it whenever they think it might "work" for them?
Because that is exactly what those who defend this practice are doing. They are telling the world, "Embrace torture. It works."
And what will the results of that be? How many innocent people will be saved when the world learns this lesson that they are to love and embrace torture?