Monday, June 9, 2008

A second approach to "enhanced interrogation" (better known as Torture). . . .

. . . because David Anderson raised a standard objection to my last post:

I have no problem with rare but aggressive interrogation by the CIA to save innocent lives when time is of the essence. I find it hard to understand the opposition. Let thousands of innocents die to allow their killer to feel good about himself. That is immoral.

This raises the infamous ticking bomb scenario, probably best known to viewers of 24.

Should we be able to do "whatever is necessary" to save thousands?

The question is not so simple. Here are several responses:

1) No one has yet documented a single instance of a legitimate ticking bomb scenario during the war on terror. Not one. It is an unproven hypothetical. The true ticking bomb scenario would result from the capture of someone with essential information about which we already had actionable intelligence that was going to occur within 24 hours or less. This rules out, just on its face, over 99.9% of all our captives.

2) Even in a ticking bomb scenario, there is no empirical evidence that torture or enhanced interrogation techniques will yield better quality information, or yield that information faster than standard, accepted interrogation techniques. As unpopular as this conclusion is with pro-torture advocates, virtually every single objective study of torture or enhanced interrogation has reached exactly the same conclusion that Dr. Jeanine Bell of Indiana University reached in 2005:

Looking at popular discourse about torture, this Essay recognizes widespread belief in what it calls the torture myth - the idea that torture is the most effective interrogation practice. In reality, this Essay argues, in addition to moral and legal problems, the use of torture carries with it a host of practical problems which seriously blunt its effectiveness. This Essay maintains that contrary to the myth, torture doesn't always produce the desired information and, in the cases in which it does, it may not produce it in a timely fashion. In the end the Essay concludes, that any marginal benefit of torture is low because traditional techniques of interrogation may be as good, and possibly even better at producing valuable intelligence without torture's tremendous costs.

3) Our captives at Gitmo are no longer in possession of such time-sensitive information by the time they reach that facility, if they ever had it in the first place. That's just a matter of definition. Nobody reaches Gitmo from Iraq of Afghanistan in less than 72 hours after capture. Subjecting those prisoners, as Congressman Dana Rohrabacher himself characterizes it, to "demeaning and degrading" treatment therefore has absolutely nothing to do with effective interrogation techniques, enhanced or otherwise.

4) The continued use of the ticking bomb scenario requires us to start down a very slippery slope. If it's acceptable to use torture to save thousands of innocents, why not hundreds? Why not one? If it saves one child. . . .

Have any of our advocates of enhanced interrogation stopped to consider the fact that the exact same argument could be advanced by US domestic law enforcement officers every hour of every day of the year? How many times do law enforcement officials have American citizens in custody with the sure and certain knowledge that these people possess detailed knowledge of violent acts to come, acts that could be prevent if only we could dispense with that pesky presumption of innocence, that restriction against cruel and unusual punishment, and just haul out the thumbscrews or the wet towels for the water board?

Curiously, a terrorist suspect apprehended inside the US with actionable, immediate, ticking-bomb type knowledge could not, under the law, be water boarded, because of the Constitutional protections given to all suspects, regardless of citizenship or legal status.

So why is it acceptable with enemy combatants detained outside our borders? Like calories that don't count if you consume them at a charity event, apparently torture doesn't count if Americans do it outside of our borders.

All of which raises the real question: given that we know, and that our leaders have known for a long time, that (a) torture is ineffective, and (b) the ticking bomb scenario is unrealistic, then why do we continue to utilize "enhanced interrogation" techniques, and why do otherwise admirable American citizens continue to support such use (in numbers larger than their presidential approval ratings)?

I think that the answer is payback. We don't like appearing weak to our enemies, who regularly behead their captives on video. We don't like the idea of letting terrorists get away with it by lounging about in a comfortable American prison while our soldiers are in harm's way. Even though we know it doesn't work, it feels good to send the scum a message.

And if that isn't disturbing, and you need another reason to reject the idea of torture, try Luke 6: 27-28.


Brian said...

Look, I have spenbt most of my life living with people from the former USSR, from Asia where torture was common in the past. Seeing the trauma they went through is enough for me to suggest that we do not ever take the same route, as Americans we need a standrad of behavior that mirrors a democratic society, bt degrades it. And torture degrades our won democratic insitutions at home, when people see abuse it affects the way everyone from the local cop to the army general do their job. I am speaking from experience here. If anyone does not get it, I suggest you e-mail President Michelle Bachelet of Chile at the Chilean Embassy. She was tortuted under Pinochet and is a doctor, you can ask her about how the process works to demoralize a people psychologically and damage their standing in the world.

Nancy Willing said...

There is no way to condone torture. Like you can't be partly pregnant, you can't, by definition, torture people and be a civilized nation and add to that the fact that torture has untrustworthy performance record.
The question: why is the Bushco line so compelling? David A. is a bright guy who is heading into active service.
Great post Steve.

David said...

The idea that torture is ineffective is a myth. Everyone breaks eventually. The same people who spout the ineffectiveness of it will tell you the second line as well. They are mutually exclusive. You have to ask effective in comparison to what? If you compare it to normal interrogation, you do not find it so ineffective. Experience has shown it to be effective. That is why it is tempting to use. That is why it will be used. The question is will it be used in the shadows and uncontrolled or highly regulated, judicious, and rare. I am for the latter.

I am not calling for torture as traditionally defined, but by your definition--I am talking about aggressive interrogation. It should be under conditions defined by law so it can not be misused. The President or Vice President should have to personally approve its use in each case.

What degrades our institutions is not torture, but allowing innocents to die. This makes people abandon the democratic process and seek dictatorship.

Steve Newton said...

The idea that torture is ineffective is a myth. Everyone breaks eventually. The same people who spout the ineffectiveness of it will tell you the second line as well. They are mutually exclusive. You have to ask effective in comparison to what? If you compare it to normal interrogation, you do not find it so ineffective. Experience has shown it to be effective.

Care to actually verify that assertion with something that resembles data?

Sure, everyone breaks. That is far from being the same as saying, "torture causes people to reveal useful information."

What degrades our institutions is not torture, but allowing innocents to die.

David, you just made my point about law enforcement; once we authorize torture (or enhanced interrogation techniques if you insist on being PC), who draws the line and where is it drawn?

If it is acceptable to torture prisoners to save 10,000 lives, why is it not acceptable to use it to save 1 life? Where's the cut-off?

Brian said...

I expect us to set a higher standard then the STASI, the KGB, The NAZI's, The Japanese, Pinochet, Colombian paramilitaries or the Cultural Revolution David.

China has basically stopped and publically decried all torture David, we have not. Look, countries all around the world are changing becuase we are not behaving accoridng to international norms. Either we do torture or we don't and I find it morally repugnant that we would do that; if it continues too long and erodes our national psychology about brutality too much or, god forbid, extends down to local law enforcement and they begin to torture and waterboard-which is how it went in Chile under Pinochet- you can reach me in Buenos Aires, Argentina or in Stone Village, Yunnan province, China. I will send you my address.

You have no idea how erosive to our national dignity torture is, and if begins to extend down to states and localities, I promise that as soon as I get enough dollars in my pocket-which is a problem- I'll go stay with family and work as an English teacher but I will not ever condone or make excuses for torture. It is inhumane and uncivilized, it is about as un-American as you get. Washington forbid it to prove to the British that we were morally says something that this inspired Gandhi, it also says something that we were fighting the brutal war of 1812 one of the most brutal of the 19th century, our white house was burned down, our president left the city on a mule cart and we refused to torture British, their African Regiments, the slaves they freed, and other captives. In Delaware we even refused to tortue or allow the torture of slaves David and in fact started abolition with Warner Mifflin who led all of us Quakers to free as many slaves as possible and spend years in jail and lose many of our mills and farms for it!

It also says something that torture was practiced at Andersonville under the confederacy, but not at Ft. DuPont. Yellow fever was there and killed a number of prisoners and their guards! But you will find beatings were not common, punishments were not nearly like the accounts from Anersonville.

I cannot in good moral conscience think that we use torture. Even if I had a second left to live becuase some crazy was going to attack me, a second of liberty is worth more than a lifetime of the slavery and fear of my own people whose history and lives and hopes and potential I adore.