Notes on torture

This episode of the Diane Rehm Show was billed as, “a look at how the Barack Obama administration may modify or dismantle anti-terror tools adopted under President Bush,” but ended up being a completely predictable discussion about torture. Mark Thiessen, a Bush staffer, argued that “the program” is completely responsible, the people behind it are “heroes,” that it was applied to an extremely small group of people, and that it saved thousands of American lives. detainess at Guantanamo Bay Mike Posner, of Human Rights First, gave the canned “we don’t have to sacrifice our principles to keep ourselves safe” argument. And reporter Jess Bravin should have played referee, but was just a little too careful and didn’t have nearly enough to say.

What struck me was something that was never directly acknowledged in the conversation. All three commentators seemed happy to conflate two different questions: “Should we torture?” and “Does torture work?”

Thiessen claimes that in fact there are situations where standard interrogation techniques simply do not work, and in those cases the extended techniques often produced results. Posner claims, as do so many others, that in addition to all the other reasons for which they are deplorable, that the so-called extended techniques in fact do not produce results.

What became clear is that in fact the evidence is not conclusive about whether torture does, at least in some cases, get people to reveal information that they otherwise would not. This super-important point really ought to have been the pivot of the entire conversation, and future conversations about this should be framed thus:

  • Is it effective? If it can be established that a particular technique does not produce results, then presumably nobody would want to use it, and the debate is settled.
  • Is it ethical? If a particular technique can be effective, then we need to balance all the other arguments against using it specifically against its effectiveness.

There is a lot of stickiness about the legal definition of torture, and about just what exactly the US does and how often, and about what is routine and what is reserved for extreme cases, and it all gets unpleasant very fast. But the unpleasantness is no reason not to keep the issues straight, and to keep the argument clear. And in this we have been failing, and we need to try harder. We need to get some sort of definite handle on how effective different techniques are, and then move on resolutely to the ethical and practical issues.

* It’s interesting that these conversations often revolve around something that gets called the Jack Bauer exception, raising the separate issue of whether a situation presented not just in a hypothetical, but in an actually fictional account, ought to be relevant to this sort of national discourse.

6 thoughts on “Notes on torture

  1. Alesh,

    If what was done to anyone at Gitmo is “torture”, then by that definition, the US military tortures it’s own soldiers. Seriously, google “S.E.R.E. training”, which all of our fighter pilots and special forces guys go through. One of my co-workers is an ex-Ranger, he went through the program. Waterboarding, sleep and food deprivation, the works. I’m not advocating for it, just saying that whatever ethical lines were allegedly crossed at Gitmo, have been crossed a long time ago, on our own (volunteer) people…

  2. Honza: Torture is a matter of consent and intent as well as action. Drawing an ethical parallel between tortured captives and American trainees is illegitimate and illogical. On those grounds, you might as well toss into the mix what goes on in an S&M Club. Or afterwards.

  3. Volunteer being the operative word here. One thing is to apply for a grueling training program —which incidentally you can quit at any time, another huge caveat— quite another is to be forced while in captivity. That’s where the ethical line is crossed.

    Here’s the issue as I see it:

    – Torture is “unpleasant”, but we as observers react less to long-term, less visible torture of the sensory deprivation kind than to the savage beatings, electric shocks, etc, we normally associate with torture. “The prisoners are just wearing googles” we say to ourselves “that doesn’t seem so bad”. Waterboarding is described as “can’t drown” or “illusion of drowning” also in an attempt to make it more acceptable. We have adopted these techniques not because they are more productive but because they are more palatable. We believe it blurs the lines between what’s torture and what’s not and consequently it blurs the collective ethical lines as well.

    – But the problem is that these techniques can cause exactly the mental conditions that make the information obtained unreliable. A disoriented, hallucinating person whose mind has beaten to a pulp; is that a reliable source? After a prolonged time of mental suffering, wouldn’t the captive lose track of reality and say whatever he needs to say in order to stop the treatment? Effectiveness should be questioned even if you agree with torture since the information obtained may result in movement of many troops and millions spent.

    – I would imagine sensory deprivation takes longer to work than your standard banana republic nail-pulling. One of the most common arguments in defense of torture is the false dichotomy “but suppose there is an imminent attack and we need to stop it”. Well, in that case break out the Inquisition equipment because you are not getting timely information with these techniques. So that argument is false in its face and yet another way in which people make it palatable to them.

    Bottom line, there are people who believe it’s crossing an ethical line to treat other people —no mater how abominable they are— in an inhumane way, and people who don’t.

  4. Don’t forget the classic GWOT-era example of torture leading to bad intel: Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.

    An Al-Qaeda operative handed over to the Egyptians for interrogation, Al-Libi’s confession was used by Bush in his Cincinnati speech in ’02 and by Colin Powell in his U.N. presentation to claim that Iraq was training Al-Qaeda agents in “poisons and gases” and other CBW techniques. This was one of the many claims that bolstered the public’s support for the war.

    Later, Al-Libi would recant his Iraq /Al-Qaeda training story, and CIA and DIA would both end up categorizing his intel as not credible. By then, of course, the war was already underway.

  5. Nicotine Fitzgerald Kiddush~

    You flatter me to think I’ve “forgotten” any such thing. But thanks for pointing it out. Possibly related: I’m currently half way through the second season of 24.


    I’m just saying that it would be valuable to get all the evidence for/against the efficacy of torture together and really look at it, separate from the ethical argument. And I’m completely baffled that that hasn’t been done.


    Yeah, I’ve read about that program. In fact, there is a widely held idea that it does no particular good, and is sort of nothing more than a glorified hazing, and should be abolished. We can argue about that, but what’s really interesting is that when it came time for us to put togehter our own torture program, we just sort of borrowed techniques from SERE, rather then cooking up our own thing.

    Or maybe not. The sensory deprivation route (as in the picture above) is widely held to be the “most effective” form of torture, and maybe (getting back to 24) they really do the thing with the defibrillator to the temples. That’d be unpleasant.

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