The American Way of Torture

Washington Post ABC Poll resize

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.

11 thoughts on “The American Way of Torture

  1. Torture, physical or psycholgical, is morally undefensible and largely ineffective. Under duress, extreme duress in torture, most humans will say anything the interrogator wants to hear just for the suffering to stop. Some rare individuals will old firm despite suffering but they are a rare breed indeed.
    Unfortunately some forms of torture are very often used against individuals, mainly psychological, and not only by the military or police. I’ve witnessed interrogations of juvenile delinquents during whitch the kid was threatened to be sent to reform school if he did not tell the truth i.e. what the interrogator believed was the truth. I even had to pick the pieces of a family whose father had been sent to jail for an incest that had never been simply because the girl said it was real when the social worker threatened her with the reform school if she did not say the truth. The truth came out 6 years later when the girl had turned 18 and was sure she was safe from the social services. That is also torture albeit not as spectacular as Abou Graibh or Guantanmo but much more common and largely ignored because the victims are vulnerable and helpless.

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  2. I can’t see why the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of it should be the first issue that comes to mind. The best analogy I have read/heard in that regard was that saying torture is effective is like saying that rape is an effective way to have sex because it can result in pregnancy. If you accept that torture is ethically and legally wrong, it does not matter whether it ever is or ever can be effective. And it is a lot easier to conclude that it is wrong for both (or either) of those reasons than it is to speculate about whether it could ever be effective, or whether it is ever more effective than other methods of interrogation. (Also: I can’t see how anyone could ever discuss effectiveness without even touching on the reliability of the information gathered).

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  3. @ A. Nonnie Muss:

    “I can’t see why the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of it should be the first issue that comes to mind.”

    Who says the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of torture is the first thing that comes to mind? So far as I recall, no where in the article do I mention what is the first thing that comes to mind when I hear of torture. On the other hand, I see no reason that all articles on torture need to be identical by covering exactly the same bases. Do you?

    “Also: I can’t see how anyone could ever discuss effectiveness without even touching on the reliability of the information gathered”

    Please go back and re-read the article.

    @ Lobo: Welcome to the blog!

    @ Paul: Good points! Although, I think your examples raise some interesting questions about exactly what torture is.

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  4. Yes there are many styles of tortures and some are more common than others…and oddly unnoticed because more common. Psychological torture is one. It leaves no physical traces, is hard to detect and can be very detrimental in the long run. It is not used so much to gather informations as to dominate and individual and get him or her to do our biddings or say what we want him or her to say. Brainwashing is one form, it is also very present in marital violence.

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  5. It really is sad that an advanced industrialized country would resort to such a level. And sadder still is knowing we executed Japanese officers during WWII for torturing Americans. How quickly history is forgotten.

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  6. I have a friend who was in Iraq doing intelligence work. He has PTSD now – he sees the disembodied eyes of the people he worked with, although he’s blocked the actual memories of most of what he saw.

    They were trying to figure out who the rebels were, resisting our occupation there – suspects were questioned by the Americans, then turned over to spend the night in the Iraqi-run prisons – where they would be suspended by the wrists with their arms behind their backs, at a height where they could not sleep or relax – if they came down from their tiptoes, it would essentially pull their arms out of their sockets. Then the next day, they would be brought back to get the Good Cop routine from the Americans. He said the information gained from these tactics was pretty poor, and it seemed that many of those being tortured were innocents. It’s absolutely disgusting – especially since they were not saving lives from a ticking bomb, or stopping terrorists – just helping ensure our profit/power-seeking take over.

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  7. I realize this is an old thread at this point but somehow I only saw the author’s reply to me just now. My, a little defensive! I did read the article, and to me it appeared that effectiveness was the first thing that came to your mind after you posted the poll results above. The very first thing you wrote after briefly excerpting and describing the results was “[t]here seem to be three notable arguments about the effectiveness of torture.”
    And no, I don’t see any reason why all torture articles/blog posts need to cover the same bases, but I don’t see what that point has to do with the point I made about this way of thinking. To say that it isn’t the same as all the other ways of thinking about torture – although, as I implied, I think it is a very common way of thinking about torture – doesn’t address the merits of it as a way of thinking.

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  8. Anonniemuss, I don’t doubt that it appeared to you that effectiveness was the first thing that came to my mind regarding torture, but you are no mind reader. If I sound a bit defensive about that it’s because I honestly don’t appreciate people telling me what I think. Maybe that’s just me.

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