"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

...And It Really, Really Works! 

Kevin Drum raises an interesting point:
I've long been leery of staking too much on the "pragmatic" case against torture — namely that it doesn't work — because it implies that if it did work then I'd be OK with it.

An excellent observation, insofar as many discussions of torture (in the abstract) inevitably devolve to invocation of the "hidden nuke" hypothetical (you know the one - you have a guy in the chair who you know, as a matter of metaphysical certitude, has hidden a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, set to detonate within the hour, but you don't know where it is) - which makes great TV, but is unlikely in the extreme to occur in real life. One problem with the pragmatic case against torture is that, in the face of the "hidden nuke" hypothetical, thoughtful people are tempted to start chipping away at the absolute principle that torture is wrong. That's a very slippery slope.

Matt Yglesias (who Drum goes on to quote) takes a stab at the problem here:
Some people don't like to bring up "pragmatic" worries about torture because they think this obscures the "real" reason torture is wrong -- it's depraved. That seems a little wrongheaded to me. A big part of the reason we know torture to be a depraved practice is precisely that it's not useful -- only depraved people become professional torturers and only depraved leaders order its systematic use as a policy tool. If torture were a vital and useful investigative tool, you'd be able to point to big piles of non-depraved torturers, but you really can't.

My problem with this formulation is that it conflates a strictly pragmatic approach ("torture doesn't work") with a normative approach ("only depraved people become professional torturers and only depraved leaders order its systematic use as a policy tool"). This seems to me to confuse the issue unnecessarily.

That said, Yglesias gets very close to what I believe to be the problem, earlier in the same piece:
Historically, the main use of torture has always been to produce coerced confessions when the torturer already "knows" what he wants to learn. Alternatively, torturing the accused is a good way of trying to terrorize a broader group of people.

In other words, it is only accurate to say that torture doesn't work if, by "work," one means "get at the truth." But that's driving a screw with a hammer - if one wants to extract accurate information, torture is the wrong tool for the job. More to the point, it's a tool designed for a very different job - and in fact, it works quite well for its intended task.

Here's a free and freely accessible (for now, anyway) article from the New York Times, which I found by way of Digby (emphasis supplied):
The Pentagon effectively signed off on a strategy that mimics Red Army methods. But those tactics were not only inhumane, they were ineffective. For Communist interrogators, truth was beside the point: their aim was to force compliance to the point of false confession.

Fearful of future terrorist attacks and frustrated by the slow progress of intelligence-gathering from prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Pentagon officials turned to the closest thing on their organizational charts to a school for torture. That was a classified program at Fort Bragg, N.C., known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Based on studies of North Korean and Vietnamese efforts to break American prisoners, SERE was intended to train American soldiers to resist the abuse they might face in enemy custody....

SERE methods are classified, but the program's principles are known. It sought to recreate the brutal conditions American prisoners of war experienced in Korea and Vietnam, where Communist interrogators forced false confessions from some detainees, and broke the spirits of many more, through Pavlovian and other conditioning. Prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, painful body positions and punitive control over life's most intimate functions produced overwhelming stress in these prisoners. Stress led in turn to despair, uncontrollable anxiety and a collapse of self-esteem. Sometimes hallucinations and delusions ensued. Prisoners who had been through this treatment became pliable and craved companionship, easing the way for captors to obtain the "confessions" they sought.

And so it is that Digby draws the critical conclusion, that our government's use of torture is perhaps incompetent - or, in the alternative, perhaps actually sinister:
Can you believe it? It's not just that torture doesn't work generally, which it doesn't. And it's not just that torture is morally repugnant and stains all who are involved with it. It does. The most amazingly thing about this (Commie) torture regime is that it's specifically designed to extract false confessions for propaganda purposes. Dear gawd, can they really be so incompetent that they didn't understand the difference between creating propaganda and gaining intelligence...?

But, you cannot discount the idea that they may have consciously sought to elicit false confessions through some misplaced fourth generation "mindwar" wet dream in which we would psych out the terrorists by being so macho that they would run like rabbits back into their caves and spidey-holes. Who knows? These guys could have originally thought we could prove how tough we really are by showing footage of al Qaeda opeatives confessing to non-existent crimes on FoxNews. With Cheney and Rumsfeld in charge, it's entirely possible that this whole torture regime may have sprung from a late night viewing of "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Battle of Algiers" over cigars and a six pack of Zima. That's about as strategically sophisticated as these guys get.

I think this is exactly right. Depending on what it is the interrogator hopes to achieve, torture is either ineffective (in which case its use is subject to attack by a pragmatic argument) or it is all too effective (in which case it is, to use Yglesias' wording, depraved).

So - which is it? Is our government incompetent, trying to drive screws with a hammer, or is it simply evil, concerned only with putting the screws to its victims? We can't know which counterargument is the correct one to apply without knowing the torturer's motives - a horrible inquiry to undertake in any case. Either way, we do ourselves no favors by using language in a sloppy way, debating without useful precision whether torture "works." It is useless, even counterproductive, if one is seeking accurate information, but that doesn't mean it isn't working. We need to bear that in mind, always.

 

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