John McCain has lately reaffirmed his view that US success in finding and killing Osama bin Laden was not based on information acquired through 'enhanced interrogation techniques', that is to say, torture. This is also the view of Senator Lindsey Graham, who instead credits (£) 'a lot of good intelligence gathering' and 'continuity of effort' (among other things). These arguments are being aired partly in connection with a new Senate Intelligence Committee report which finds that 'brutal treatment was not "a central component" in finding Bin Laden'; and partly in connection with Kathryn Bigelow's film 'Zero Dark Thirty', said by some who have seen it to suggest (in the words of the New York Times report just linked) 'that the calculated infliction of pain and fear, graphically shown in the first 45 minutes of the film, may have produced useful early clues in the quest to find the terrorist leader'.
If the use of torture was not instrumental in getting to Bin Laden, it is worthwhile establishing this conclusively. It is worthwhile as a way of changing the minds of people who believe that torture is effective in obtaining useful information. There is also, however, a difficulty and a danger with this mode of persuasion. It gives a hostage to fortune. For, should it turn out that torture is in fact sometimes effective in obtaining sound information, this could be seen by some as justifying its use.
There is another stronger argument for not countenancing the use of torture - not in any circumstances. This is that torture is absolutely wrong irrespective of consequentialist considerations about the possible benefits of using it. It is absolutely wrong in that it violates rights of individuals which no state, indeed no one at all, may override in any circumstances. That they may not do so is not only a thesis in moral philosophy; it is embodied in the highest law. The prohibition of torture is among what are called jus cogens norms in international law. These are peremptory norms that bind every government and from which none may derogate in any circumstances, not in war, not in national emergency, never.
A subsidiary issue is whether graphic scenes of torture should be included in a film one of whose aims is entertainment. I would like to see 'Zero Dark Thirty' when it opens in this country, but I'm not that keen on seeing graphic depictions of cruelty, spread across 45 minutes. OK, that's me, and there may be those who do not share my disinclination. But I don't pose the question only on account of my own preferences. I pose it in general terms: is the public display of cruelty in an entertainment-related context something to be applauded? One might argue that this isn't just entertainment; it purports also to be the provision of information. I accept that, but still worry about the point. Could the same information not be conveyed with greater indirection? (Thanks: CT.)