When I was in my accident last year, the doctor attending my wounds had to conduct a test to see if I had ruptured my knee. Using a syringe that might have been labeled "ACME" and been brandished by an anthropomorphic coyote, he injected the interior knee with a silicate jelly to see if it leaked out.
It hurt, alot.
In retrospect, the words "searing, white hot agony" might sum up the experience, though they still fall far short of adequately explaining the sensation. The thirty seconds of this test might have been more painful than any other part of my treatment and recovery. It hurt a hell of a lot more than the accident did. This aspect of my treatment taught me one very important thing lesson:
It's really good that I'm not in the CIA.
If I were as spy and I was caught whilst spying, all the enemy would need to do is obliquely imply that that I might be subjected to that test and I would sing like a canary on amphetamines. I would give them the secret plans or the launch codes or the names of all the undercover agents in Romania or whatever the hell it is that foreign intelligence officers would want to torture out of any American operative. That's all it would take and I would tell them anything they wanted to hear.
Herein lies most people's misunderstanding of the current debate over torture.
The intelligence and defense community does not want the authority to torture prisoners in order to garner information. Any interrogator will tell you that intel acquired under such duress is, at best, unreliable and at worst, outright false. Moreover, torturing a prisoner cements their identity, instantly solidifies their conception of the torturers as evil, prevents them from ever trusting their captors and thus robs interrogators of a myriad of other methods of inquiry that are both more effective and more humane. The victim is thusly eliminated as a possible ally. Ultimately, there is very little useful information available through torture.
No, the purpose of torture is to intimidate the populace, to leave ordinary people afraid of the possibility that they, under certain circumstances, could be tortured. Stay in line or you'll be the one being waterboarded, thumb-screwed or sensory deprived. Moreover, pay extra attention to what you say, do and to whom you speak because your family and friends are at risk as well.
Once torture is an available option, other civilized concepts of law and ethics that would otherwise protect the innocent are obviously out the window. Our mundane concepts of individual responsibility, innocence and guilt cease to apply. Watch your friends and neighbors as well as yourself or you might find yourself under duress as the result of their actions. This is what torture does, it cements fear, divides populations and undermines faith in civilians' right to justice. The torture of a scant few can then be used as a tool curtail the rights of many tens of thousands.
The debate thus far has centered on the human rights of those being tortured and on the political credibility of the United States. While the infringement of the first and the loss of the second are both tragedies, they pale in comparison to the larger implications of what such a policy shift indicates.
The value of torture is not the information it extracts from those who are tortured but what information it conveys to those who are not.