Is Torture Immoral or Not? What Say You, Ms. Haspel

Is Torture Immoral or Not? What Say You, Ms. Haspel




Along with millions of my fellow Americans, I watched the Open Hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee for the nomination of Gina Haspel to become CIA director. I saw a seasoned bureaucrat of remarkable intellect, unswerving loyalty, and self-evident leadership poise. In a different time both Democrats and Republicans would have no qualms whatsoever confirming her for a post that she worked 30+ years to attain. As far as I could tell, no one has any doubts about her credentials and expertise. 

Philosophically, I think Haspel succeeded in giving the citizenry an ethical lesson on the inherent flaws in absolute moral systems that are based on virtues alone. As Haspel pointed out in numerous ways, she believed that she acted at all times with a moral compass. She stated that her principals were well thought out and that she had the authority to make decisions. At the time she was involved in the detention programs, most Americans supported the use of so- called “enhanced interrogation” tactics. What is more, the president, the Attorney General, and most of Congress not only approved of these measures, they actually ordered them to be done in the name of national security? 

Throughout her hearing, Haspel tried to open up a conversation about higher virtues. What are they really? Are they loyalty and obedience to the law? Or should we favor the virtues of independence and courage to resist authority? Haspel made the viewer at home wonder whose side they are on. Do they believe in the higher virtues of patience and tolerance as terrorists plot to kill innocent people? Or is ingenuity to stop the slaughter by any means necessary more virtuous? Just what are the highest virtues after 9/11? Are they justice and human rights for all or peace and security for civilians who earn it? 

These are not yes and no questions. If you were in Haspel’s shoes, would you deprive Abd al-Rahim al-Nashir food, water, sunlight, sleep, personal contact with the outside world, the ability to worship, and a chance to answer charges at a trial, if it forced him to give up intelligence that prevented another U.S.S. Coal attack? These are the type of problems that face anyone who is in a position to combat terrorism by using terrorism. As someone in that unsavory position, Haspel came across as believable, competent, and steadfast.

I do want to make one point that aims to bolster and reaffirm the serious concerns expressed by senators Angus King of Maine, Susan Collins of Maine, Ed Reed of Rhode Island, Kamala Harris of California, Diane Fienstein of California, Mark Warner of Virginia, and most notably the Arizona Senator and American hero John McCain. It is common knowledge that the CIA has acted outside international law on a number of occasions, including their policies on the use of torture post 9/11. Torture is not wrong because it is illegal. Torture is illegal because it is wrong. Classified programs, oaths of allegiance, and professional conduct will not make an immoral act justifiable- not even when it is deemed perfectly legal by lawmakers such as presidents and senators.

Since the Spanish Inquisition the same “practices” committed under Haspel’s watch have been considered torture. Today it has been codified in international law that the highest pursuit is always moral truth. Torture violates the pursuit of moral truth and contaminates the pure intentions of anyone who tries to attain it. 

For Haspel to argue that it was right to torture because it was popular and legal to do so at the time is far from a solid defense.  Apartheid was legal in South Africa. The Gestapo obediently followed orders to raid the homes of innocent victims. Kim Jong-un executed family members and fed their remains to ravishing dogs. It is obviously illegal for anyone in North Korea to challenge him. Less than 100 years ago it was legal in certain parts of America to lynch a black man for looking at a white woman the “wrong” way. Even Osama bin Laden reinterpreted Islamic theology in order to make killing other Muslims legally acceptable to Allah. 

Following orders has nothing to do with acting morally. So what if the CIA follows the law. Does the CIA follow the Truth?  So what if Haspel followed orders without giving them a second thought. Does she believe that torture is immoral today? That is the main issue. What say you , Ms. Hespal? 

George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer, domestic violence counselor, and adjunct professor of philosophy at Finger Lakes Community College. He lives and works in Rochester, NY.