Torture Is Never an Isolated Event

Since torture seems to be under discussion by the A-list bloggers, I want to follow up on a point Helmut made in his Congressional testimony about torture. Simply, it is this: if torture is truly used as an interrogation technique, and not to fulfill a psychological need or as terrorism, it can not be an isolated event--it must be systemic and routine.

Take the case the pro-torture advocates constantly raise, the Jack Bauer scenario, where if torture were not used then TEH EVIL TERRORIST will level Los Angeles in five minutes and twenty three seconds*. Oh, I forgot: BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!

Are we now in the appropriate frame of mind? Good. Now imagine that you're not Jack Bauer, but the evil, nefarious terrorist. If you knew that you only had to delay for a few hours and then your dastardly plan would come to fruition--after all, the bomb is ticking--what would you do?


Give them so much crap that they'll never be able to discern what is true and what is false. Figuring out what is reliable intelligence is difficult even with voluntary walk-ins; it will be much harder with someone who is actively trying to hinder you. So how do you figure out whether or not the torture victim is telling the truth? Corroborating evidence.

In other words, evidence acquired through torture will never reveal unique, unknown information. It is only useful when there is other confirmatory evidence. So torture serves no purpose in the Jack Bauer situation, since it, at best, further supports what you already knew or suspected. For torture to have any possibility of being an effective interrogation technique, you have to torture lots of people in the hope that multiple torture victims will confirm each others' information. This means that torture has to become a routine component of interrogation.

That is the truly horrifying consequence of adopted 'enhanced interrogation techniques' such as partial drowning interrogation (waterboarding). It is not the 'banalization' of torture and its effect on the torturers. It is far more simple. As with any other interrogation technique, innocent people will be subjected to torture.

There will be those who can accept the torture of the innocent because that barbarity makes them feel safe. So in the end, we are torturing innocent people because it makes us feel good. Others will claim that torture will have a 'deterent' effect, which is simply another way to say terrorize. When one is fighting a 'War on Terror' and one uses terrorism, it can safely be said that you have literally become the monster one set out to slay.

And I am still naive enough to think that, on occasion, America is better than that.

*Although what's worse is that the television audience will be subjected to hackneyed dialogue in the intervening five minutes and twenty two seconds.

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Ah, but you are forgetting that Jack Bauer also has a magic lie detector. Considering how prevalent the use of polygraphing appears to be in the USA, I suspect that proponents of torture also believe that they too can tell if their victims are lying.

We torture for three reasons.

1. If our enemies know that if captured we will torture them to death, then our enemies will be strongly encouraged to fight to the death, and never surrender. This understanding will be strengthened if our soldiers shoot the wounded, and it will encourage more of our enemies to join the fight.

2. Having our agents torture prisoners will eliminate whatever humanity our agents started with. Additionally, it will make our agents utterly loyal to the government, and will turn them against civilians in general.

3. When the national government uses torture, they invite emulation by local governments, which are the police in this country. Torture at the local level binds the police to the federal government, terrorizes the citizenry, and enhances in-group solidarity.

Nobody in their right mind would use torture to get at truth, and neither would most people in their wrong mind.

By Globle Warren … (not verified) on 18 Dec 2007 #permalink

Funny you should bring up polygraphs, Flaky, because results of polygraph interrogations aren't admissible in court. The main use of polygraphs in modern police work is to intimidate a suspect into offering a confession... Gee, a lot like torture, huh?

Joshua, to my knowledge, polygraphs are not just used for intimidating suspects, but the results are used to guide the investigation, e.g. a case might be considered solved, if a suspect is determined to have lied, even though he cannot be charged due to lack of proper evidence. Also, advocates of polygraph testing claim over 95 % reliability, and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, it's not quite true that polygraph results are always and everywhere inadmissible as evidence. Even when not usable in court, they are being used to decide eligibility for parole, etc.

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, makes a very good argument for torture.

Atheists have found it especially useful in the 20th century. In fact, they still due in a very highly populated country.

By Lindbarger (not verified) on 20 Dec 2007 #permalink