Torture, again

On my thread about torture and the issue of “keeping our hands clean” while fighting wars, “anonymous” writes:

Let me clarify: getting our hands dirty in terms of forming alliances with brutal tyrants or fanatical kooks has indeed paid off. In WWII, in Korea, in Afghanistan, and so on.

But getting our hands dirty in terms of torturing people has not paid off. The intel that is gained that way is not reliable.

Now, Matt Welch addresses this issue at Hit & Run:

[W]ater boarding elicited the “vital” information from Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi that “Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons.” As a CIA-sourced ABC News investigation reports, “al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.”

The administration’s position is now crystal clear. “We do not torture,” we water board; we do not use Soviet-style imprisonment/interrogation tactics, we just secretly use former Soviet facilities and Red Army false-confession techniques. And if some detainees die in the process, well, bad apples and all that.

It’s easy to get distracted by the semantics and immorality of it all, but the ABC News story suggests a very pragmatic rebuttal to the administration: By whatever name or euphemism, water boarding seems like one of the worst methods possible of obtaining quality information. And treating water-boarded data either as a strong basis for policy, or as a prop to make a political argument, seems unwise at best.

The argument against torture (and, pace The Wall Street Journal, any interrogation techniques that rely on physical suffering are torture) seems devastating, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. One can argue that when fighting a war for survival, we should not be afraid to “get our hands dirty” if that’s the only way we can win. But in this case, it looks like we’ve got a lot of dirt on our hands, and we’re none the safer for it.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Torture, again

  1. Rainsborough

    I wouldn’t contend that torture NEVER “works,” produces useful information of what the bad guys are up to. (Which isn’t to say it shouldn’t be forbidden.)
    But I would contend that the value of whatever useful information has been obtained since we began engaging in torture is massively outweighed by the harm it does our effectiveness in the region.
    And I would contend that the unbounded incompetence of this administration extends to its practice of torture, so that it may well be the information obtained is negligible.

  2. protein wisdom

    I was told by a Navy SEAL that waterboarding is extremely effective.

    I trust someone who’s been there and done it, I guess.

    But then, I also don’t equate physical discomfort with torture, or else I’d have grounds to accuse one of my old schools of torture for making me sit in a very uncomfortable chairs during lit theory seminars.

  3. mabman

    There’s no doubt that waterboarding is extremely effective in getting someone to talk – it’s whether what they tell you is worth anything that’s the problem, one that I doubt a Navy SEAL who’s implicated in using this technique would be likely to cotton to.

    Your “physical discomfort” analogy for waterboarding is interesting – stupid, but interesting.

  4. Cathy Young

    I hope we can keep this discussion polite, but —

    Jeff, are you really suggesting that sitting in an uncomfortable chair is in any way comparable to inducing a physical sensation of drowning/suffocation, or being immersed in freezing water, or being stripped naked and placed next to an air conditioner going at full blast?

  5. peter hoh

    Al-Qaida “grew up” amid repressive regimes that employed torture at whim. Somehow, they survived. I suspect that they know the best way to keep captured operatives from telling their plans — share few details, and even give operatives false information up until deployment, and even then, give them the least amount of info necessary.

  6. vbspurs

    Al-Qaida “grew up” amid repressive regimes that employed torture at whim. Somehow, they survived.

    This is an excellent point, and one, in the non-ethical realm but rather of the more Realpolitik variety, which would suade me against torture.

    Because the sad fact is that, I am not in favour of flat-out Iron Maiden, 1970’s Latin American junta variety of torture — but I am in the guise we have employed so far, of the variety at least shown publicly.

    I understand that anyone who states what I did, is making a pact with the devil internally, in authorising or condoning my government to employ vicious tactics, ranging from humiliation to sleep deprivation, etc. — but I am pragmatic and not idealistic, as perhaps Cathy is…to her credit.

    But you just can’t be the world’s policemen, if you are just “good cop” all the time.

    I suspect that they know the best way to keep captured operatives from telling their plans — share few details, and even give operatives false information up until deployment, and even then, give them the least amount of info necessary.

    But then this begs the following — the US, via its military, is never going to be as brutal as anything approaching what Saddam and other torturers have done.

    It is therefore quite clear to me that whatever we have been dishing out, is no where near as violent or excessive, as what they are used to.

    Look, I don’t know if these hardened men, who have chosen a life so far removed from the niceties of ethical questions themselves, would crumble if really put to the torture by the US military.

    But I think it’s not incredible to assume that we might have gotten “our men” and information in general quicker, if we had.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

  7. Revenant

    Al-Qaida “grew up” amid repressive regimes that employed torture at whim. Somehow, they survived.

    Don’t you think it might have helped that a lot of the people “torturing at whim” were on their side?

    The Taliban’s primary backer, for example, was the Pakistani secret police. Al Qaeda has numerous sympathizers among the Saudi princes and within the religious police. Egypt and Syria actively fund and train terrorist groups. Etc, etc.

    A person who goes around saying “we must have peace between Islam and Christianity, and learn to accept and tolerate each others’ differences” is a hell of a lot more likely to get arrested and tortured by a Middle Eastern government than a person who goes around saying “all infidels must be killed”. Hell, the latter is pretty much a qualification for some government jobs over there.

  8. Cathy Young

    Victoria, I don’t really know if I’d class myself as an “idealist.” I would say, though, that IMO, “waterboarding” and such practices as exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold go far beyond humiliation and discomfort.

    And let’s not forget that some of these prisoners are not hardened terrorists or any kind of terrorists; they are people who’ve been rounded up by mistake.

  9. protein wisdom

    Jeff, are you really suggesting that sitting in an uncomfortable chair is in any way comparable to inducing a physical sensation of drowning/suffocation, or being immersed in freezing water, or being stripped naked and placed next to an air conditioner going at full blast?

    No, I was being flip.

    But what I was suggesting is that physical discomfort doesn’t always rise to the level of torture; submersion in freezing water and waterboarding, for instance, are both part of the training for some of our own.

    I’m up for a serious discussion of what torture is and how we can narrow down the definition so that we can interrogate effectively and still keep our souls.

    However, too many times these discussions wind up with the participants trying to out-virtue one another. Which is, I suspect, the impetus behind Mabman’s calling my analogy “stupid” — he needed to set up right away that he was more serious than someone who would make such an analogy. Torture, after all, is serious business.

    But that missed the point; which is that as it is currently defined, you can extrapolate out from many definitions of torture the very kinds of discomforts I’m talking about, provided you’re able to argue that they are not so minor at all in certain contexts.

  10. Cathy Young

    Jeff — I see your point; but isn’t some of this training for U.S. forces precisely for the purpose of toughening the soldiers up to be able to resist torture by the enemy?

    Btw, I’ve never heard of “waterboarding” being a part of training for U.S. forces, but I may be wrong of course.

    I would add that just because certain kinds of pain/discomfort are sometimes inflicted for benign purposes does not make them “not torture.” Not to be gross here, but every year tend of thousands of Americans have a plastic tube pushed up their rectums for a colon exam (and until recent improvements in medical technology, the tubes used in these procedures were rigid and the procedure was quite unpleasant). Likewise, every year millions of American women have their breasts painfully jammed between two metal plates (it’s called a mammogram). Does anyone have any doubt that such acts would and should be regarded as completely out of bounds if inflicted upon a prisoner?

  11. peter hoh

    Revenant, No, the people torturing were not always on “their” side. Al-Qaida’s roots include the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt has been trying to stamp for the past 40 years or so.

  12. peter hoh

    As for US military personnel being subjected to waterboarding and being dropped into icy water as part of their training — how many of them died as a result?

    But let’s adopt the idea that torture is okay. Then I still have a problem with the deaths of detainees. And not because I like the terrorists.

    If we had a top al-Qaida lieutenant and he died during torture, then we screwed up because we lost a potential source of intel. If a mid-level operative died, same deal but to a lesser extent. Are either acceptable? No.

    Even if you accept the idea that killing the bad guys during (or as a result of) torture is okay, what do you do about the folks who were just rounded up and really had nothing to tell? All through the torture, they are acting just like the really tough al-Qaida types who have been trained to resist torture.

    Hell, if torture is such a good idea, then advocate that we start using it at home. There’s always the chance that using it might save an abducted child. That we might start using it to work over burglary suspects, well, that’s just an incidental consequence, and besides, who really likes these criminals, anyway? It’s not like torture would be used in cases of white collar crime.

  13. Revenant

    Revenant, No, the people torturing were not always on “their” side.

    I said “a lot”, not “all”.

    If we had a top al-Qaida lieutenant and he died during torture

    How many detainees have died as a result of torture? The only statistics I’ve seen are for number of detainees who’ve died as a result of injuries. I’ve never seen that broken down by source of injuries. It would be useful to see what percentage of the injuries were sustained during their apprehension, versus afterwards. Also, how the breakdown looks before and after they were transported to a detention facility.

    If, for example, Army personnel catch a guy who was, moments before, shooting at them, and proceed to beat the bejesus out of him to such an extent that he later dies, he would be recorded as a detainee who died due to injuries. But calling him “a prisoner who died due to torture” would be deceptive.

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