Sunday, August 20, 2006

Torture: once more with feeling.

In the comments to my post "Obscenity," Anonymous asks
Are you REALLY REALLY saying that you would not torture One person to SAVE the innocent lives of many THOUSAND others.
We will never hide behind our children but we really have to get over the fact that others do.

Would I torture one person to save the innocent lives of many others?

No. I wouldn't. Not ever.

Torture is immoral and reprehensible. Dictators and tyrants engage in torture; free and democratic people reject it as being the tool of despots. To suggest that we as Americans should engage in torture is to turn from our belief in just methods of punishment as enshrined in the Eight Amendment. For America to embrace torture means that the terrorists have well and truly won: they have turned us into the sort of monsters we fight wars against.

There are several reasons states torture, among them to gain information or to instill fear into subject populations (whether that be prison detainees or POWs or religious minorities) so as to create submissive and compliant peoples.

I am not going to discuss the second reason. If you accept torture as a valid means of controlling people, rather than as a means of information gathering from a single individual, you are morally bankrupt, and rational people should not waste breath on engaging in debate with you.*

As a means of information gathering, torture does not work.

Everybody here familiar with Alan Dershowitz's "ticking time bomb" hypothetical? That is would be okay to torture as long as we had "torture warrants" to insure the right person was being tortured, and it was only used in the most extreme of emergencies?

Terry Karney, a professional army interrogator and a voice of sanity and reason on the issue of torture, explains why it doesn't work:

In the scenario you give, it won't work. Unless the bomb is going to go off a long time from now, all the guy has to do is 1: hold out until it goes off or 2: tell a good lie, and trust that the situation won't be resolved until it goes off (a healthy lead, into the area the bomb is would be the best at this, the assumption would be he told the truth and the EOD guys either failed to find it, or to defuse it.

And that is a situation in which you are sure you have the right guy -- what about the situation in which you don't? If you bring in a suspect who in fact has no knowledge of anything, all torture will do is elicit information that is worse than useless: plots that do not exist will be revealed, involving innocent people. Precious time and resources will be wasted on investigations that would be better spent elsewhere. And the potential for injustice multiplies, as innocents named by the first torture victim are brought in, perhaps for their own dose of "interrogation."

Fairness compels me to add that Terry's opposition to torture is based upon more than its failure as a method of interrogation. Terry has been, as he put it in the link above "a still small voice" proclaiming the utter evil of torture, and in addition decrying it for the effect it has on torturers as much as on the tortured.

Often, people who support use of torture against terrorists feel that those of us who do not aren't facing reality. Ah, but we do face reality, and understand that reality is complicated: life does not present us with cut and dried factual scenarios. We don't always know what is going on. This is not a law-school exercise.

When faced with a reality where facts are often unknown and guilt and innocence are murky, all we have, really, to keep us from falling into evil are our moral values. They are who we are. Without them, we are lost.

Lately, some of us have been willing to abandon our principles wholesale out of fear. In the comments to my prior post, I said to Anonymous that there are fates worse than death. Many people would think living under tyranny is one of them. I don't know if that is right, but I do know becoming an agent of tyranny is another.

We, as a country, could be headed toward that fate, unless we step back and reclaim the values that we have always said we stand for.

And if we don't, the terrorists will have won. Completely.

*Although it should be noted that methods such as torture have a way of creating terrorists on the other side: every relative of every torture victim is a potential suicide bomber.


  1. I think it's time for Anonymous to read Orwell's "1984".