The Washington Post and ABC News released a poll today that asked, among other things, whether Americans approve of torturing terrorism suspects.
A little less than half of those polled approved of torturing terrorism suspects.
There seem to be three notable arguments about the effectiveness of torture. The first argument or position holds that torture is ineffective. This is the position adopted by the United States Army as recently as 1992.
According to that year’s Army Field Manual FM34-52 for Intelligence Interrogation , “Use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”
This is also the position of the U.S. military’s senior interrogator in Iraq in 2006:
…they [“enhanced interrogation techniques”] are neither the most efficient nor reliable methods of achieving cooperation. There are rare circumstances where force and threats would be more effective and timely than intellectual methods, but in those rare circumstances, if we resort to torture … the actual harm done to us is greater than any benefit that we could obtain.
In contrast to the notion that torture is ineffective when compared to other interrogation techniques is the notion that torture is actually more effective than other interrogation techniques. The classic example of this argument does not seem based on anyone’s experience, but rather on a hypothetical situation. The argument begins, “Suppose you had a bomb ticking away somewhere…”.
In 2004, Senator Charles Schumer presented the hypothetical position that torture is more effective than other means of obtaining information to Congress:
I think there are probably very few people in this [Congressional hearing] room or in America who would say that torture should never, ever be used, particularly if thousands of lives are at stake. Take the hypothetical: if we knew that there was a nuclear bomb hidden in an American city and we believe that some kind of torture, fairly severe maybe, would give us a chance of finding that bomb before it went off, my guess is most Americans and most Senators, maybe all, would do what you have to do. So it’s easy to sit back in the armchair and say that torture can never be used. But when you’re in the fox hole, it’s a very different deal. And I respect, I think we all respect the fact that the President’s in the fox-hole every day. So he can hardly be blamed for asking you, or his White House counsel or the Department of Defense, to figure out when it comes to torture, what the law allows and when the law allows it, and what there is permission to do. [emphasis mine]
An odd thing about Schumer’s argument is that it requires us to to simply accept as a given or forgone conclusion that torture is more effective than other means of obtaining information. We are not told why we should believe torture in more effective; we are simply told “we believe” torture is more effective. Perhaps the military is right and it is true that torture is rarely an effective means of obtaining information.
A third position on torture is that it is no more nor any less effective than other means of obtaining information. Peter Wehner, who once worked in the Bush White House, seems to argue in this Commentary Magazine article that torture is a reliable means of obtaining information.
Yet, Wehner fails to demonstrate that torture is better than other means of obtaining information. Consequently, his argument for the use of torture amounts to the confused and morally impoverished argument that torture is a permissible means of obtaining information simply because information can be obtained by torture.
So there you have three positions on the use of torture to obtain information. It seems only the first position — the position that torture is a largely ineffective means to obtain information — is supported by most interrogators.
The other positions — that torture is more effective than other means or that it is no more nor any less effective than other means — are more likely to be supported by politicians and bureaucrats. Yet it is these last two positions that popular culture seems to support.
Once again, the American military’s senior interrogator in Iran in 2006 put it this way:
Television shows like 24 incorporate interrogation and the use of torture under the “ticking bomb” scenario because it is dramatic and entertaining and sells commercial space. The myriad of cop shows, including NYPD Blue, CSI, Law & Order, and The Shield, consistently use harsh and forceful interrogation scenes to build excitement, and it is a favorite topic of talking head political shows, and currently a major topic in political debates.
So why do almost half of all Americans think torture is an acceptable means of obtaining information? Perhaps because of two things. First, so many of their leaders — especially certain politicians and bureaucrats — support torture. And second, because so much of popular culture supports torture. But whatever the case, Americans who support torture cannot be listening to the interrogators who say that it’s use is rarely effective.