Torture Doesn’t Hurt Images

Lindsay makes a novel argument against torture, saying that by hurting the USA’s image in Canada and Europe, it strips the US of needed allies and hence undermines its national security.

Without real trials, the world has no assurance that [terror suspects] are guilty of anything. We are being asked to trust that the president is just, benign, and well-informed. Yet, this is the same president who flouts treaty obligations and champions torture. The civilized world would rightly regard such a leader as a despot.

If this legislation passes, the global war on terror could cease to be global. In the grand scheme of things a few extra confessions from squalid cells in secret prisons are worthless compared to the respect and cooperation of our allies.

My response was, “Maybe torturing people will help American national security; the level of respect people have for the US right now is so low that instigating one more atrocity can’t harm it.” To that Lindsay answered,

Alon, I was thinking about the current situation in Afghanistan. British, Canadian, and Dutch forces have committed thousands of troops to Afghanistan between them.

NATO is asking for more troops for a fall offensive against the Taliban. However, public opinion is increasingly divided in these countries about whether the Afghanistan mission should continue at all. I think opposition to American human rights abuses and power grabs contributes to the backlash against the Afghanistan mission.

There are international efforts to track and arrest terrorists. However, if the United States insists on its right to torture whoever it wants, and/or imprison them for life, other may countries will hesitate to share information with American authorities.

First, small nitpick: countries other than the US aren’t picky about allies to share intelligence with. Britain foiled the August 10th plot partly with the help of Pakistan, a country that everyone right of Chomsky agrees has a worse human rights record than the US.

More substantially, I don’t see any evidence that Abu-Ghraib made anyone outside the US less supportive of its foreign policy. Most Brits have been against American Middle East adventurism in the first place; any anti-Americanism in Britain is easier to attribute to the Iraq War and Tony Blair’s Ameriphilia than to Abu-Ghraib, which at the time was overshadowed by allegations of similar abuse by British troops (which later turned out to be false).


8 Responses to Torture Doesn’t Hurt Images

  1. SLC says:

    Is there anybody, other then Bettina Aptheker, to the left of Noam Chomsky?

  2. Agent KGB says:

    I think the idea that torture hurts a country’s image is pretty well established. Even if the US’ image was too far down to drop any farther, passing concrete legislation prohibiting it could help bring it back up.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    SLC: Ward Churchill.

    Agent KGB: Torture alone might hurt a country’s image, but that’s when it has an image to begin with. KGB torture didn’t hurt the Soviet Union’s image; it couldn’t, since the only people who would like the Soviet Union if it didn’t torture were communists who, given that the Soviet Union did torture, either justified their loved country’s actions or refused to believe it.

  4. Agent KGB says:

    I don’t get it. You’re saying that, since the US image is so sunk that it couldn’t go any further, the US might as well torture people because it couldn’t do any harm to the US, so therefore the US military/CIA torturing people is fine?

  5. gordo says:


    I have to disagree with your analysis of the Soviet Union’s image. In Europe and the US, torture was always among the sins enumerated by advocates of an aggressive anti-Soviet stance. Advocates of detente were severely weakened whenever fresh outrages surfaced.

    I think that you’re right to say that it doesn’t hurt our image in Europe and Canada as much as Lindsay appears to think, but that’s only because so many Europeans and Canadians don’t have much of a problem with using torture against Islamic extremists. But it’s a crucial issue, I think, because it hurts us in subtle but important ways.

    The governments of countries like Russia and Pakistan find it harder to support American antiterror actions. That’s ironic, since they also engage in torture, but it become difficult for those governments to justify helping the US to their Muslim citizens. Both countries have enough problem with containing Islamic fundamentalists as it is.

    Also, support for American actions in Islamic countries inflames the Muslims of Europe and Canada. That creates a security problem in those countries because they rely to a large extent on loyal fundamentalist Muslims to help police the potential terrorists within their ranks.

    Any way you slice it, the US has to make a choice: we can stop torturing, or we can weaken the coalitions that we build to fight terrorism.

  6. gordo says:

    Agent KGB–

    I don’t want to speak for Alon, but the way I read his post, he’s making a strictly practical argument. I don’t think he’s commenting on the morality of torture.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t get it. You’re saying that, since the US image is so sunk that it couldn’t go any further, the US might as well torture people because it couldn’t do any harm to the US, so therefore the US military/CIA torturing people is fine?

    I’m saying torture is morally wrong and practically ineffective; with these arguments, it really doesn’t matter what the national security angle is.

  8. Agent KGB says:

    Sorry, I misunderstood.

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