Thursday, May 21, 2009

So What About Torture?

We're all talking about torture these days, what with Dick Cheney ranting that torture (and illegal wiretaps, and and and) has "kept us safe." This has got me thinking about it; I think I've said this before, but it's worth saying again. As a hypothetical question, why shouldn't we use torture? If it'll find us that "ticking bomb" they always talk about, why not?

The practical approach, which you will hear from almost every experienced intelligence officer you find, is that it doesn't work. As the very old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. What you get from a man you are torturing is not the truth; it's what he thinks will make you stop hurting him. You get the truth by persuading him, gently, that his interest and yours run together, and that he can help himself by helping you. This is how the pros do it.

But the real issue isn't whether torture "works" or not. What effect does torture have, and on whom? The issue with torture is the corrupting effect on the torturer. I can't remember the names offhand, but there was a famous psychological experiment at Stanford, about 30 years ago - the professor divided his students randomly into "guards" and "prisoners." In almost no time, the experience of having power over the "prisoners" caused the "guards" to behave abusively to them - it got so bad the professor stopped the experiment. Power corrupts. Torture corrupts the torturer. And if we, the people, allow torture to be used in our name, it corrupts us; we are complicit. This is why Obama is right to say that we can, we must, protect ourselves without compromising our values - the values which say that we don't do those things.

The argument about "keeping us safe" is absurd. I simply don't believe the argument that the lack of further attacks since 2001 means we are "safe," and that we're "safe" because our agents tortured the people in Gitmo. Safety is very iffy - any of us at any time could be killed in an automobile accident, whether the government is torturing people in Guantanamo or not. How then are we "safe"? If we die, what difference is it how we die? If a man wants to kill you badly enough that he's willing to die in the process, you can't stop him except by sheer luck.

The real argument in favor of torture, which is never openly stated, is that our lives, our country, our safety, are so important that we can, we should, use every possible means to protect ourselves. The end justifies the means. This is just wrong. The end doesn't justify the means; the means are important. The wrong means will corrupt the end. If we use the enemy's means, we become the enemy. Where did the "enhanced interrogation" methods come from? They come from the army's SERE school, which teaches U.S. soldiers how to resist torture. Whose torture were they meant to resist? The torture used by the Communist Chinese, during the Korean war; that's when SERE was established. Does this mean we've become the Communist Chinese? Prove that it doesn't. We're doing what they did.

And that's why we have to stop this. The Bible says, By their fruits ye shall know them. We have to stop producting these bitter fruits. We should never have started.


  1. You're referring to

    The Stanford Prison Experiment. Originally scheduled for two weeks, it had to be ended after six days because of the harm students were doing to their "prisoners."

    Torture doesn't work, despite "24." Unfortunately, pop culture has driven policy in this case.

  2. There are several imponderables in the discussion about our supposed "security."

    I've heard people say all the time how easy it is--would be--to sabotage any of our infrastructure--and I tend to believe them. Which raises an interesting (and perhaps unanswerable) question.

    How do you KNOW that any safeguards you might set up have actually PREVENTED a terrorist act?

    Sadly, based on news reports and exposes I saw long ago in public television, our CIA was well aware of the threat of 9/11--in fact, that agency went out of its way to PERSECUTE one of its own maverick officers who kept ringing the warning bell, eventually railroading him out of service altogether. In one of the greatest ironies of the modern age, he ended up working as a SECURITY GUARD (!) in the Twin Towers. These events straddled the end of the Clinton years, and the beginning of the Bush II years. Meanwhile, at commercial jet training schools, KNOWN terrorist suspects were casually, openly, taking pilot training courses; and airport and airline security check-points were paying NO attention to these suspects as they boarded domestic flights, in plain view of security cameras, etc.

    Has the fact that there have been no terrorist events in the U.S. since 9/11 "proved" that our security measures are effective? Or have there in fact been no attempts?

    Experts tell us that the construction of a serious nuclear device has become really pretty simple: If that's true, wouldn't it be really simple for a couple of shadowy middle-easterners to rent a van and install a bomb, drive it into the middle of Manhatten and set it to detonate on a timer?

    This probably should all keep us from sleeping at night.

    I just doubt the probable correlation between "precaution" and event which people seem to put so much faith in.

    I think Osama Bin-Laden, wherever he is, has pretty much succeeded in bringing about the very eventualities he originally hoped would result from his naughtiness. We took all the bait and swallowed it, and here we are, expending lives and resource and reputation in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. And still, day by day, we may be no more "safe" and "secure" than we were on 9/10/01.

    Because the folks who want to attack us will do the very thing we least expect, whether it's putting poison in Miami water supplies, or dropping anthrax canisters over Chicago, or whatever nightmarish thing the mischievous mind can devise.

  3. Thanks for the reference, Steve - it was indeed the Stanford Prison Experiment. I wrote this post about 3 days before leaving on vacation and I simply didn't have time to look it up.

    Curtis, you make my point exactly. These "precautions" were taken to make it look as if the government was doing something to protect us. Their principal effect, as has often been noted, has been to inflame the "Arab street" against us even more than before.