More on Torture

Mitch’s old post on the McCain Amendment just received a thoughtful comment, almost one year later, from a commenter who points out some of the unpleasant realities of the practice known as “waterboarding.” It really does sound bad. Is the commenter’s characterization accurate? I don’t know but it seems plausible.

Let’s stipulate that waterboarding is torture. I think it is but I could be mistaken. It’s clearly a lot less damaging to suspects than are many traditional tortures. If, as the commenter claims, few people can last more than 14 seconds then so much the better. They can reveal what they know and go on to live their lives, though perhaps imprisoned, at least in one piece physically.

The real question is what to do instead of waterboarding people whom we think have valuable information. Currently we tacitly allow torture by other countries to which we and our allies send suspects for interrogation. The recent UK bomb plot was stopped based on information gained from such a suspect who was sent to Pakistan and tortured. We are going to have more such ticking-bomb situations in the future. Should we observe all of the niceties and accept a higher rate of successful attacks by terrorists? Should we waterboard some suspects ourselves? Should we extradite them to places such as Pakistan and Jordan and look the other way when they are tortured (really tortured)? These are the only options. Choose one. There is no free lunch.

I agree with Wretchard and other commentators (and, I think, President Bush) who argue that public officials who oppose torture of terror suspects should explain why as-yet-theoretical risks of civil-rights violations of suspects outweigh demonstrated risks of mass-death from terror attacks. I am not saying that people who oppose torture have no case, only that they should make one. So far they have mainly asserted that torture is bad without comparing it to the alternatives and weighing the costs and benefits. That’s an evasion. We should have a debate.

Or perhaps, by their silence on the cost/benefit issue, torture opponents have already conceded the argument. I hope that’s not the case. I think the country would be better off to debate this and other important issues openly.

46 thoughts on “More on Torture”

  1. In regard to cost-benefit analysis I’ve not seen any evidence laid out that shows that torture is effective. Are we making an unwarranted assumption that torture works? If we look at Qutb’s biography we can see that torture does radicalize at least some people–it does work in that sense, but that’s a negative sense.

    If we subscribe to Bush’s vision of freedom and democracy, then surely freedom from cruel and unusual punishment (torture?) would be a part of that vision. Just saying I wouldn’t want my family to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment.

  2. Let’s try some facts.

    Jonathan asserts: “as-yet-theoretical risks of civil-rights violations of suspects outweigh demonstrated risks of mass-death from terror attacks.”

    Abu Ghraib isn’t theoretical. The American perpetrators of atrocities there have been convicted on hard evidence, not theories.

    A 2,000-page U.S. Army report concerning the homicides of two unarmed civilian Afghan prisoners by U.S. armed forces in 2002 at the Bagram Collection Point, shows that prisoners, Habibullah and Dilawar, were chained to the ceiling and beaten to death.

    Military coroners ruled that both the prisoners’ deaths were homicides. Autopsies revealed severe trauma to both prisoners’ legs, describing the trauma as comparable to being run over by a bus. Seven soldiers were charged.

    What’s “theoretical” about that? And no one can credibly doubt whether there’s more where that came from.

    Jonathan writes: “Should we observe all of the niceties and accept a higher rate of successful attacks by terrorists?”

    The prohibition on torture isn’t a “nicety.” It’s a simple, logical exptrapolation of American values that generation after generation of Americans have defended and the founding fathers deliberately enshrined.

    And the assertion that less torture equals more attacks is entirely without substance.

    Jonathan presents the issue as kind of hypothetical conundrum, as if we don’t have a surfeit of contempary torture states. Israel uses torture and has one of the highest rates of terrorist attacks in the world. Putin’s Russia has shown very little respect for human rights and is almost certainly among those that believes only brute force works. It kills Chechens like burning firewood, and where has it got them? I’d love to know what Jonathan would advise Putin on that.

    Come to think of it, the evidence is that the use of torture and the frequency/intensity of terror attacks seems to be directly proportional. How then, does Jonathan arrive at the opposite conclusion? Obviously, it is possible to pre-empt some terrorist attacks by torturing people suspected of involvement in or knowledge of them. But the facts show that over time, you create more terrorists.

    The Islamic extremist enemy has very little money, even less territory, an extremely narrow ideology and a literally suicidal fighting strategy. It does have one big weapon: total desperation. Torture is perhaps the most potent ammunition for that weapon.

    If terrorists are certain they will be tortured, we can be certain none will ever be captured without violence. Jonathan cites an example of torture eliciting information; but many intelligence experts say that by far the most and best information comes from people who choose to cooperate because they are convinced to turn their back on their self-destructive past.

  3. Liar’s interesting anecdotes prove nothing about policy because they are about violations of the then current policy that have been prosecuted and were being investigated for prosecution before their revelation.

    There are two issues, what should the policy be and what should be done about violators of the policy. No matter what policy is adopted, there will be violators.

    I don’t go to bed at night worried that my family will be on the recieving end of that kind of treatment. And if my son were in theater, I’d go to bed worried about a hell of a lot worse.

    There is no reason not to give as good as we get. In World War II we were able to fight using both styles concurrently. Let the enemy make the choice. It’s obvious which way this one has chosen.

    Violators of whatever policy is adopted? Simple. Prosecute and punish to the full extent of the law. There is no reason to think this is not occurring.

  4. Mark Moore,

    I think it’s clear that waterboarding and other American interrogation techniques have been useful in getting information out of captured terrorists. There’s also the example of the person who revealed the airline-bombing plot: whatever the Pakistanis did to him, it was probably worse than waterboarding and it appears to have saved thousands of lives.

    I don’t see how it’s relevant that you wouldn’t want your family to be subjected to such harsh treatment. Your family aren’t enemy fighters or bombing conspirators, so it’s not going to happen to them. If our forces start to capture and torture innocent Americans or even foreigners on a large scale then I will object, but so far we seem to be capturing and interrogating mainly the right people, and there is an obvious cost to not interrogating them effectively.

  5. Jonathan – I do not completely reject the notion of torturing Holy Terrorists. However, how do we make sure that we do not torture innocents (although I think most Taliban and non-Afghans picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistani NW Frontier are Holy Terrorists) and how do we make sure we do not get erroneous information from these people? Like you I think we should not worry about “niceties”. I am more worried about the value of intelligence to us than their well-being.

  6. I recall that when I was in the USAF, in basic training, we were instructed on the Uniform Code of Military Justice and on the Geneva Convention. The military is governed by the UCMJ and within the UCMJ are penalties and restrictions on all types of behavior, expecially treatment of prisoners. The UCMJ does not allow much more in the treatment of prisoners than what is written in the Geneva Convention.

    Following my time in basic training, I was sent to survival school, since I was to be flying over hostile territory. While in survival school we were subjected to various types of torture so that we would understand what we were in for should we be captured. The abuse was verbal and physical. One of the worst devices we were subjected to was “The Box”. The box was metal box about 3 feet on all sides. It was painted black and was placed in the hot sun. We were put inside of the box – hands and feet bound – and left there. How long do you think someone can take being inside of a totally dark box where you cannot move, and the inside temperature is over 130 degrees? Answer is not long.

    Following that particular aspect of training I asked the question about the various types of torture we were subjected to and the Geneva Convention. Why the disconnect? The Geneva Convention bans most of the treatment we were subjected to – why would we need to go through this type of training. Well the instructor pretty much laid it out for us. You cannot expect an enemy to abide by the Geneva Convention – the Vietnamese certainly did not, nor did the Russians, North Koreans, East Germans, Chinese, and most tin pot dictators in other parts of the world. Recall the treatment that the crew of the USS Pueblo received at the hands of the North Koreans.

    Fortunately, I never was shot down and forced to endure the torture that was sure to come my way. A few close calls, but lucky. I have numerous friends that were not so lucky and they spent years in North Vietnam regularly being subjected to heinous treatment. Treatment that was so bad, that if you did it to an animal, you would go to prison. Yes, they were placed in the box, and they were also forced take regular beatings with whips and bamboo poles, they were denied medical treatment.

    The treatment that is rendered to those at Gitmo is so good it almost laughable. No interrogation longer than 2 hours. Interrogations stopped if it conflicts with one of the 5 daily prayer sessions, food cooked to the prisoners specifications, regular medical treatment. Quite frankly, I would treat those at Gitmo the way that they treat their prisoners.

    Moral superiority does not win wars. Superior firepower, and superior fighting skills win wars.

  7. I’d rather be waterboarded, then get sent to guantanamo, than not be waterboarded and sent to a prison in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Afghanistan, Russia, China, etc.

    If we aren’t doing this to american citizens, then why should it matter? And screw Geneva conventions. The US and Israel are the only country held to those standards, so why should we follow them when our enemies don’t?

    When we can be reasonably confident that our prisoners won’t be beheaded, then we can consider taking waterboarding off the table.

  8. Liar,

    Your examples are all red herrings. Abu Ghraib and the few other cases like it were instances of abuse, which is already prohibited, not serious interrogation. Nobody is arguing that prisoners be abused for the sake of abuse. The real question, which you ignore (except to concede my point that torture was useful in the air-bomb plot), is what to do in ticking-bomb situations.

    Obviously, it is possible to pre-empt some terrorist attacks by torturing people suspected of involvement in or knowledge of them. But the facts show that over time, you create more terrorists.

    Exactly: “it is possible to pre-empt some terrorist attacks by torturing people suspected of involvement in or knowledge of them.” But what “facts” show that torture creates more terrorists? I am not aware of any such facts, and even if they existed I don’t see why it’s obvious that creating a few extra terrorists wouldn’t be an acceptable cost for saving many more lives. And does torture create more terrorists than does killing terrorists on the battlefield? Or imprisoning them? I don’t understand your logic.

    The Islamic extremist enemy has very little money, even less territory, an extremely narrow ideology and a literally suicidal fighting strategy. It does have one big weapon: total desperation.

    That’s simply false. These people aren’t poor, desperate wretches. They are well-funded ($oil), led by educated, intellectually sophisticated men and, from their perspective, on a roll. They are committed to jihad. They are driven by the memory of their many political and military successes through 9/11. They are a serious enemy.

    . . .many intelligence experts say that by far the most and best information comes from people who choose to cooperate because they are convinced to turn their back on their self-destructive past.

    Dream on. A lot of the people we capture are as dedicated to their cause as we are to ours, if not more so. They aren’t common criminals who can easily be persuaded to go straight. They know our rules. They have contempt for us. They aren’t going to talk unless forced to.

    I should add that if we prohibit ourselves the use of effective interrogation methods, a lot more terror suspects are going to be killed in battle rather than captured, because our troops reasonably will not want to assume the additional risk needed to capture them.

  9. Sulaiman,

    We will inevitably torture some innocent people, just as we inevitably kill some innocent people in battle. So far it appears to me that the benefits of doing some torturing outweigh the costs, just as the benefits of going to war have IMO outweighed the costs. If the situation changes then I will reconsider.

    And of course we torture now, it’s just that we either 1) don’t call it torture, 2) sometimes do it informally when the people involved think they can get away with it or 3) delegate it to other countries. I think we would probably do better to discuss openly what we are doing and systematize and codify it. Now we tolerate it but pretend not to.

  10. For its comic effect:
    President Bush said in an interview with the New York Times last year that:

    …torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.

    “I don’t see how it’s relevant that you wouldn’t want your family to be subjected to such harsh treatment.”
    In a policy discussion I would support an ethic that follows the golden rule. If I’m not mistaken I’ve seen “how I want other families to be treated” used as a rationale for supporting the invasion of Iraq.

  11. Those of us who’ve grown up along the Atlantic coast of the US, especially the mid-atlantic, and have spent even a bit of time playing in the surf have experienced the “torture” of being held under water for some number of seconds and even aspirating it and choking and spewing it out once surfaced again. Somehow those, over time, untold thousands (millions?) have survived the torture with no detrimental effects.

    Each summer day, throughout the US, millions of people gleefully jump aboard various sorts of amusements and some hundreds or even thousands wind up vomiting, perhaps aspirating some of it in their attempt to not vomit upon the people nearest them. Yet they survive and continue on with their lives unharmed and no worse for the wear and tear after some brief time for recovery.

    Sinus headaches, migraines, too much drink, encounters with bad food or water, and various influenzas attack untold numbers of people each year and many of those fear death at the time, or are so miserable that they wonder if they wouldn’t welcome it, and would trade any bit of information requested for relief if it were possible. Yet they survive and recover fully, no scars, no mental disabilities.

    Pardon me if I don’t lose any sleep over detainees who, after proper vetting, are strapped to a board for a few hours and dunked multiple times for a few seconds. They’ll get over it.

  12. Think of all the brothers and horsing-around buddies who’ve “tortured” so many in the nation’s pools over the years. How can we live with ourselves? What a horrible nation.

  13. Again, I’d really recommend the Ron Suskind article I linked to. It talks about the cost/benefit issues that Jonathan requested. Sounds like our practice of torture hurts our efforts. Intuitively it makes sense to me that people would say whatever they think would make it stop true or not true.

    And on another topic, I’m just totally surprised to see conservatives (I’m assuming that’s how people here roughly self-identify) defending governemt torture. I thought you were the folks who didn’t like government to have too much power? (James Rummel, Shannon Love, where are you?) There’s such a record of governemts abusing this kind of power. Aren’t you guys the people who defend the right to bear arms to balance out goverment power. Isn’t a government deciding who they want to torture scary to a libertarian? But I digress.

  14. Chel,

    There are those among us who simply do not agree that every form of discomfort qualifies as “torture”. As has been demonstrated in posts above, those Americans who have engaged in actual torture and even homicide are prosecuted and, when found guilty, punished.

    As a nation it is quite clear that we fully condone making people – even citizens – uncomfortable when we have reasonable suspicion, or have proven, they are engaged in some criminal activity. We toss them in prisons, or interrogation rooms, where they are made uncomfortable sometimes for the remainder of their lives.

    As I said above I will not lose a moment’s sleep over the practice of dunking, or similar methods of inflicting discomfort such as “induced hypothermia” (heh, I’ve stood guard duty and I got over it) or “stress postions” (standing with a leg or arms held up – oh, the pain, the pain!) for the sake of gaining information from mass murderers. Honest to Betsy, not a moment of sleep will I lose.

  15. Well, Chel, I’ve read the Suskind article and color me unimpressed. As I mentioned I do not share Mr. Suskind’s definition of “torture” or, for that matter, “abusive interrogation”. In Mr. Suskind’s world (but not mine) an interrogator who tells the detainee that his children will be hurt is “going mideival”. I have nothing but a vigorous, “Oh pishaw!”

    A terrorist organization killed nearly three thousand Americans and over the next few months 14 of the higher level captures from that organization were subjected to interrogation that made them fearful and uncomfortable. The horror, the horror! Some of the information proved of no value, some other information of great value. No crushed bones, no drilled teeth, no crippling from knee-capping, no hanging from helicopters.

    In the meantime many others of those captured were subjected to other, less uncomfortable methods of interrogation. These techniques, like all interrogation techniques, sometimes yielded good results and sometimes yielded nothing.

    I fail to see the end of American democracy as we know it in any of this. To be honest, yet again, I believe those of you who do are hyperventilating. Try breating into a paper bag. Some claim it helps. I’m not prone to hyperventilating so I can’t speak from experience. I have been cold as heck, or thought I might drown, have vomited – complete with aspiration, have had to stand or otherwise maintain quite uncomfortable physical positions for extended periods of time, and have even been thoroughly convinced that my death was imminent. As torturous as all of it seemed at the time none of it was torture. It was, in fact, nothing more than temporary fear and/or discomfort.

    As far as I’m concerned Mr. Cia Interrogator can dunk away at will. Oh, and don’t forget to crank up the A/C or crank down the furnace while you’re at it. It’ll be OK, Mr. Interrogator, we’ll continue to keep on keepin’ on with our Great Experiment in Flawed Democracy. We’ll be OK, you just go on trying to figure out reasonable ways to help keep the little kiddies safe from the mass murderers.

  16. Think of all the brothers and horsing-around buddies who’ve “tortured” so many in the nation’s pools over the years.

    The problem with that is, it’s all fun and games until somebody dies. You don’t want to make somebody die (at least, not while you’re trying to extract information from them).

    I was tortured yesterday, and paid for the privilege. I made my torture appointment and went to sit in a waiting room with other detainees who talked loudly on their cell phones (…SO HE SAID THE BLOOD SUPPLY TO MY PLACENTA WAS…). (My boyfriend, who stayed in the waiting room the whole time, said that was plenty torture right there.)

    After a short wait I went in to have a woman squeeze my arm hard. Then I was told to strip and sit in a cold room. Soon the torturer came in. I told her everything she wanted to know.

    I figure there’s no need for torture when you can give those guys a little safe, modern medical care. (Still won’t talk, eh? Well, I think you need a root canal! Muahahaha!)

  17. I really hate this subject. Here is what I wrote recently in a comment at Samizdata.

    When the remains of two of our captured soldiers had to be identified by DNA tests, the enemy forfeited all rights to humane treatment. There have always been instances when blatant violations of the rules of war by one party have resulted in their suspension against that party. Waffen SS troops were routinely killed, for example, while Wehrmacht soldiers might be captured and held. This is especially true when the violations were clearly a policy (Imperial Japan) rather than a deviation from it.

    That said, I still oppose torture because of what it does to us, not because of what it does to them. The enemy in this case have no reasonable moral claim to be treated better than they would treat us if the positions were reversed. I object only to the coarsening of the spirit that would follow from treating them as cruelly as they deserve. Killing captured terrorists as punishment or as retaliation for atrocities committed by their forces may be a regrettable necessity, and certainly not unjust; partaking in their hideous delight in causing suffering is soul-destroying evil.

    In the “ticking bomb” scenario, I’m afraid I’m going to have to be agnostic. There is a utilitarian argument in favor of extracting information, but utilitarian arguments assume that suffering and benefit are fungible, measurable, cumulative, and transferrable. Those who argue that torture is always and everywhere wrong (categorical imperative) can usually only muster a mere assertion and beg the question. This will not suffice. Torturing or harming an innocent person is clearly wrong by any reasonable (natural law) standard, but torturing a guilty party to prevent more harm being done to the innocent is not an obvious wrong.

    I’m still ambivalent. The commenters who say we should wage war according to the Golden Rule are committing a category error, since this would clearly be impossible. I would certainly prefer that the “others” drop their weapons and shake hands with me; but I would be violating my oaths and neglecting my duties if I were to drop my weapon and approach the enemy lines with my empty hand outstretched. I leave the practical result as an exercise for the slow learners, with a hint that the outcome may not be desirable.

    Regarding the violation of the rights of innocent parties, that is a valid point. I would not apply the concept of innocent as broadly as the Constitution, though. Any person who is reasonably certain (not beyond a reasonable doubt) of being in a command position of a terrorist organization (al Qaeda, Gestapo, NKVD, etc.) has no claim to be treated better than he has treated others. He is ex officio a murderer and a torturer. He is not an innocent. There is an older law that applies here:

    Leviticus 24 (New International Version), v. 17 ” ‘If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. 18 Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. 21 Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. 22 You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.’ “

    This was an ethical breakthrough at the time of its writing. Retaliation or punishment was limited to the degree of harm inflicted. Tribal feuds, collective punishment, and torture of captives were forbidden. If our enemies’ moral sense had evolved to this bronze-age level, we would not even be having this discussion.

    Most accounts indicate that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, planner of the 9/11 attacks, furnished information that prevented future atrocities. Details of his interrogation are not available to the public, but as we have not been informed of his conversion to Christianity or Judaism, we must surmise that his cooperation was not completely voluntary. This does not trouble me very much at all.

  18. Mitch,

    Many valid and thought provoking points.

    Where I part company from the “no torture for any reason under any circumstances” crowd is, almost exclusively, in the definition of “torture”. I do not accept the defintion that “torture” is anything and everything that makes someone fearful, seriously uncomfortable, or angry. It is, in my mind, really that simple. And I don’t think there is any difficulty in finding and training interrogators who know where the line between inflicting discomfort and fear and inflicting actual torture lies.

  19. Angie,

    A while back I had to go to one of those dentists who specializes in root canals. I don’t recall what they’re called and I’m too lazy to look it up. In this case it was to determine whether or not I neede a root canal; i.e, was the tooth in question alive or dead.

    After what seemed like hours but was almost certainly no more than 10 minutes or so spent discovering that the tooth was, indeed, alive and that no root canal was necessary, the dentist (an Indian gentleman with a quite heavy accent) was finished and said I could rinse. I did, of course, and quickly spit out, “It’s safe! It’s freakin’ safe, I swear it’s safe! Where’s my oil of cloves?”

    He looked at me and had no idea what I was going on about. Torture!

  20. Knucklehead, I can see how you could draw analogies to your own life and think that waterboarding is no more than being dunked in the pool or being pulled under the waves as kid on the Jersey Shore. But from people’s descriptions (including the description that inspired Jonathan’s post) this does not represent the experience of being waterboarded.

    And I really don’t like the desparate times call for desparate measures. If we can’t maintain our high standards when times are tough, what are we? For me it’s a really important part of my American identity and a source of pride that we don’t do stuff that the evil countries do, like torture. We respect prisoners and people are innocent until proven guilty. That’s such a cool, important high road that we take. Or at least I thought we took that high road. Recent events have put me in crisis…

  21. Chel,

    I’ve said about all I can say on this matter. I do not care what the “experience” suffered by the detainees who were waterboarded was. Undoubtedly the guy who was waterboarded was absolutely miserable. He thought he was going to die. He choked on his own vomit.

    No permanent harm was done him. In some short amount of time he was probably right as rain and returned to chilly cell with the really rotten pop music blaring. And he probably spent a few days being rousted from his sleep at odd times.

    None of that fits my definition of torture. The standard course of life will put the vast majority of us through significantly worse. A miserable, mass murdering human being was made miserable but was not subjected to torture. If such techniques are found to be effective I have no problem with them being used against terrorists. If they prove ineffective I presume they will be abandoned – there’s no point continuing ineffective methods. Reality is probably that they are sometimes effective and other times ineffective to varying degrees. Which means they’ll probably continue to be used when the professional interrogators feel it necessary. You see this as “desperate measures” and I see it as nothing more than prudent.

    If Americans (and other infidels) were subjected to nothing more harmful for the simple fact that they are Americans there wouldn’t be any war on terror, would there.

    “Heh, sweetheart, did you see the news tonight?”

    “No, what happened?”

    “Those whackjob Islamists kidnapped another busload of people.”

    “Oh My God! You think they’ll waterboard ’em and keep in chilly cells and make ’em listen to that awful music again like they did to the last batch! Oh, those poor people – they had to endure days of that. And they wouldn’t let ’em sleep! I don’t know how they survived.”

    “Well, if you ask me we gotta hunt ’em all down and give ’em pink-bellies! You gotta fight fire with fire. None of this coddling crap.”

  22. I think that Mitch’s “coarsening” argument is one of the stronger ones against our use of torture. Chel’s comment implicitly makes a similar argument.

    I respect these arguments. My objections are that I think the cost in lives of rejecting torture is too high, as I have already argued, and that I don’t think we have the time. I think that we are going to be coarsened by this war, like it or not. It is inevitable given the exceptional cruelty of our enemies, and I think it is happening already. And given our enemies’ great wickedness it is inevitable that they are going to try to perpetrate mass-murder on a huge scale if they think they can succeed. I want us to go all-out to defeat them before that happens. We will harm some more innocent people and we will become harder ourselves. These are unfortunate costs. But if we can defeat the jihadists sooner rather than later, we are more likely to prevent not only their mass-murder attacks against us but also our Jacksonian retaliation, that could kill millions, against them. If torture can help us to win quicker and avoid these nightmare scenarios, let’s use it.

  23. don’t agree with physical torture and I would include waterboarding as torture. These people should be held incommunicado, given eight hours a day for food and sleep, but questioned for the remaining 16(average durations). They should be held in conditions where it is not possible to perceive the passage of time, with the aim of producing disorientation and a sense of isolation from their values and beliefs.

  24. Oh, and you do realize that one of the newly authorized torture techniques is to put terrorists in separate rooms for interrogation. You know, like you do with your own kids when you to find out who really did it.

    You have a broken window. You ask your two sons, how did it happen? and who did it? You get silence, or not me, or I dunno. So, to find out you put one kid in his room, and the other in his room and you talk to them one at a time. So, you play one against the other to get to the truth as to who broke the window.

    It nice to know, that the tried and true way that parents get information from their kids is now an “authorized” means of torture. Geeeez. Now I know why Shakespeare wrote “first we kill all the lawyers”.

  25. Oh-My-God, JohnS! Don’t you realize that your turning both your sons into life-long window smashers with such desperate measures? See, there’s yer proof. Waterboard a dozen terrorists and next thing you know American dads are torturing their sons!

  26. Gordon,

    Give ’em eight hours a day for eating and sleeping, no contact with fellow human beings other than the ones hammering at them with questions for the remaining sixteen hours a day… Sounds like working a help desk. Admittedly that’ll break most people within six to 12 months. But it’s sounds much closer to physical torture than a couple hours strapped to the dunking board.

  27. Perhaps the most equitable solution is to follow the guidelines of the Geneva Convention; all combatants who are not in uniform and try to blend in with civilians may be executed as spies. We would certainly forgo some of the intelligence that could be gained by capturing and interrogating these people, but we would gain immeasurably in the simplicity of our approach to the war against Islamic fascism.

  28. Jonathan,

    I have some agreement and some disagreement with your position.

    First the disagreement. It seems to be the case that actual torture is not particularly effective as an interrogation technique. Inflicting real pain in massive levels, actually physically damaging people (the mashed fingers and toes, the electric shocks, the bamboo shoots, the teeth drilling sorts of things) doesn’t seem to gather information any more quickly or accurately than other, less drastic forms of interrogation.

    Coercive, but not torture, tactics are probably at least as effective. Strap the auto battery charger to the guy’s testicles would, IMHO, be torture whereas tie him to a board and dunk him a few times for 30-60 seconds (not torture IMO) would probably yield a similar level of success in interrogation. The kid gloves approach (we’re just nice guys who care about you) will work for some other situation, but certainly not quickly enough for “gotta have it now!” type of information).

    I don’t buy the “coarsening of the entire society” argument. We’ve sent citizens out by the millions to behave as brutally as necessary and I don’t see much evidence that our society has been widely coarsened by it. It would have that effect on some portion of the individuals but not on society as a whole. Some nasty interrogators working on a few hundred or even thousands of prisoners just isn’t going to be anywhere near enough to society’s eyes to do any coarsening.

    Now for the agreement part. I, like many of us, believe that this current situation will, eventually, yield a large war every bit as brutal as the wars of the past. If we don’t win it while it is still small it will become yet another total war. Total war is nothing less than inflicting torture upon your enemy until they are incapable of continuing. Destroying their world around them, bringing death and dismemberment upon them at such scale that even those who aren’t killed or injured can’t imagine surviving very long because even if the bullets and bombs don’t get them the destruction of their ability to feed and shelter themselves will eventually get them.

    That is torture of both the physical and mental forms. I prefer it not come to that but I feel it will. That will coarsen us. At least for a while. I’d prefer we get this over with while it is still relatively small and can be accomplished without temporarily turning ourselves in a nation dedicated to inflicting real torture upon our enemy. In my dark moments I just don’t see that as a possibility. And, unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll reach the point of no return – in the coarsened society terms – until it is clearly undeniable to the vast majority of us that such action is necessary.

    If the Islamic world cannot find a way to stop being our enemy we will, I fear, eventually be forced to treat them as precisely that. That’s gonna be ugly – especially for them. They will then know what torture is.

  29. Daniel,

    Disposal. If keeping a prisoner alive cannot possibly provide any value because nobody is allowed to extract information from the prisoner could potentially yield the effect of not keeping prisoners alive. If prisioners are all downside with no possibility of upside, then why not simply dispose of them.

  30. The US Army has a field manual that gives step by step instructions on how to perform a classified number of different interrogation techniques complete with room temperatures, pulse rates and other telltales.

    Congress should read the manual and vote on each technique to either accept or reject exactly as described.

    Then all interrogations must be by the book. No deviations (no riffs by the interrogators). This ends are the non-sense about water boarding, acid drips, molten metal enemas, mercury transfusions, or forcing people watch Lawrence Welk reruns.

  31. Sol,

    What an excellent idea. There is probably a similar CIA manual that could be voted on by a subcommittee.

    They will not, of course, do any such thing. They would have to stand up and be precise about what they are fer and agin’. Congress has no interest in nailing their own feet to the floor by making it clear where they each stand. They enjoy their scam of screaming about broad issues and ideas since few of the unwashed masses has a clue what the specifics are.

    It might be interesting – if it is not classified – to make such a document available to the public. I suspect the average John and Jane Q. Public would wind up scratching their heads and wondering why the heck so many people are screaming about “torrture”. A significant majority of us would have few or not complaints with the interrogation techniques in the manual. Heck, a majority of us would probably be fully willing to add a few, somewhat harsher techniques to the list along with reducing the tems and raising the pulse kind of criteria.

  32. I have to apologize for monopolizing this thread.

    Sol’s suggestion, however, led me to go googling around to see if the military interrogation manual was available online.

    So far I’ve found FM-34-52, Intelligence Interrogation at Of particular interest, or relevance, to this discussion is Appendix H, Approaches.

    I’ll go away and leave the thread to other voices now.

  33. Knucklehead,

    By using the word “disposal” you are, perhaps, trying to create the impression that I think that these people are less than human. If so, I reject that supposition. One reason to forgo torture and simply execute them is to preserve the idea that they are human beings. Executing them according to the law will allow us to remain civilized and prevent the coarsening of our conduct of the war and of our society that Mitch described.

    You must realize that one of the reasons for confinement of these people is to prevent them from returning to the fight. Execution would satisfy that requirement!

  34. Gee! Everyone’s so concerned with “torture.” Well, may I say, succinctly, let’s just give the “detainees” tea and bisquits every day at 4 PM. That way “we,” the captors, can establish a meaningful rapport with the poor, misguided, terrorists. —What nonsense!!!! And the concern with waterboarding? Poppycock!!! If the method gets the information needed, by all means, ladies and gentlemen, allow “us” to continue the process. Our interrogators aren’t breaking bones, nor are they shoving chopsticks into the ears of the captives. Shall I name a few more dastardly possibilities? Personally, if I may say, I’d prefer to give these bloaks a sharp slap at the back of the head and a swift kick in the pants. Perhaps the pain, on both ends, will give them pause. A few sessions as such will preclude wasting water and Saran Wrap, for goodness sake!

  35. That was not my intent, Daniel, and never entered my mind. I was not in any way trying to overload the term. A group of US soldiers in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, or sneaking over the border into Waziristan, winds up in a little firefight and further winds up with a captive Taliban and/or a-Q “detainee”. They must dispose of this person one way or another. Normally there would be sufficient potential for intelligence value that they’d haul him back to base or call for transport. If there is not potential for intelligence value (can’t question the guy) then they must dispose of him otherwise. Let him go is one way. Kill him is another.

    Warfare is about killing. I don’t see much point in getting hung up about insignificant moral distinctions. I really don’t see the moral distinction between dropping a nuke, or incendiary bombs, on your enemy as opposed to starving them or shooting them or just dropping a different sort of bomb on them. The point is to kill them.

    If a captured enemy might yield information that will save some lives on your side or lead to the ability to kill more of the enemy then it makes sense not to kill him. If, on the other hand, those benefits are unavailable then it makes no sense to keep him alive.

    BTW, I believe we are at war. We need to kill the enemy. I don’t relish that or see it as some wonderful thing. It just is. Stuff happens.

  36. We are tolod with no specific examples that torture has worked and prevented acts of terror…names and dates and incidents, please?
    We are told: torture ok because no one respects Geneva Conventions in other countries so we should not either.

    Why not simply kill any and all prisoners taken in war except those who might provide info if tortued nearly to death? Why bother “housing” them? And they can do the same for our people…

  37. OK, so I lied. I’m going to continue participating unless my hosts tell me to refrain.


    The point of interrogation is to gain useful information. What sort of information may be available from someone you’ve captured depends upon who that someone is. If you’ve gotten hold of some dope who is nothing but fodder to whomever he’s fighting for the sort of information you can get from him is (or at least is likely to be) very different that what you can get from the leader who told the fodder where to be and when.

    The first will know what the target was for this particular time but the second might know what the next target will be. The first might know where some basic arms and ammo are cached and the second might know where the large depot is. The first might have no idea who or where the next three levels of the chain of command are. The second might know that very well.

    Tea and crumpets at 4PM might be a very good interrogation technique for the captured fodder dope. He may well say, a week or two into his capture, that he’d always believed you were a two-headed monster who would butcher him if you ever caught him. And gee, the guys who trained him in thus or such a location obviously lied to him.

    The leader, on the other hand, isn’t going to give up anything for tea and crumpets. The proper conversational technique for him might be dunking his sorry arse in the nearest water hole until he actually believes you might just drown him. Or heck, it might be simply offering him some form of bribe.

    Not to mention that what little this fodder guy knows is probably far less “time sensitive” than what the leader knows. You can wait to learn what Fodderman knows but you probably want more rapid discovery of what Leaderman knows.

    Whatever is most likely to yield the information that might be available is what should be used.

    There’s no point to “torture”. There is a great deal of point to interrogation and good reasons to use different methods of interrogation.

  38. Nzuckerman,

    And who, precisely, “keeps telling us” that “torture” has yielded such information? What has been claimed is that certain interrogation techniques have yielded valuable, actionable information. You, apparently, would label those techniques as torture. Some of us disagree with that label.

    That point made why on earth should anyone provide specifics to you? Giving out specifics would compromise other intelligence. Intelligence is not discrete bits of information with no relationship to other bits of information.

    Perhaps you’d prefer that terrorists have a better idea of what we’ve learned and what we haven’t learned by “chatting” with their comrades?

  39. If torture works and isn’t inhumane, why not apply it throughout the justice system?

    Why should taxpayers cough up $500 an hour for forensic accountants to sift through Tom Delay’s second set of books? Strap “The Hammer” to a waterboard and the smart money is on a confession forthwith.

    There were 16,692 murders and non-negligent manslaughters reported in the U.S. last year, according to the FBI, and more than 93,000 rapes. Clearly, the murder and rape threats are far more serious threats to public security than terrorism, which has killed only a tiny number of people in the past few decades.

    Why then deny police and/or prosecutors the torture tool? The government spends many millions of dollars a year on trials, including appealed verdicts and providing lawyers for indigent accused. Surely waterboarding could greatly increase the number of confessions, sharply reducing the cost of prosecutions and increasing the success rate.

  40. Liar wrote:
    If torture works and isn’t inhumane, why not apply it throughout the justice system?

    Because you can’t argue effectively against the interrogation policy proposed by the Bush Administration so you’re pulling an argument ad absurdem fallacy in the hopes that people won’t notice?

    Oops, odd how that non sequitur came to mind.

  41. I think Liar has a good point here. I mean if waterboarding is so awesome why don’t we use it in other cases that threaten a serious number of Americans? Well, I think the reason is because it’s inhumane and because doesn’t work. Seriously if not that, then why?

    Also, reductio ad absurdum is not in and of itself a fallacy unless it degenerates into a straw man.

    Which I don’t think it does in Liar’s case. If waterboarding were safe and humane it should be used in the circumstances Liar described. That’s no straw man.

  42. This is the view of an expert:

    One of the U.S. Army’s top spycatchers, retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, who has interrogated suspects ranging from henchmen of former Panama strongman Manuel Noriega, to Vietcong operatives and Soviet double agents, said to me: “It is never proper to mistreat a prisoner.”
    In his book, “Stalking the Vietcong,” Herrington, a member of the Phoenix program in Vietnam, said: “One of the keys to securing cooperation of a source was to disarm him psychologically by decent treatment.” Herrington recently added, in an interview: “Nothing else works as well.”
    He said in addition: “There is basic human decency involved. The prisoner in front of you is a father, a brother or a son. He’s the same as you are, and I always asked myself, if I were in his place, how would I like to be treated.”
    According to Herrington and others, the main agent for dislodging information from a prisoner is not torture or coercion but hard data. The burden of how best to use that data to obtain solid results falls on the questioner, who must skillfully use the massed facts in a game of quick wits and timing to get his subject to talk.

  43. One may justify torture in cost-benefit terms, but torture is what it is: cruel and unusual rape of a vulnerable (none of us are innocent) individual. Torture is neither honorable nor noble; it is a spot and a stain on our nation’s soul.

    The justification for torture typically follows the radical and revolutionary calculus of sacrificing someone’s present freedom, life, or dignity for some supposedly greater future good. Where is the conservatism in that feverish, inflamed vision?

Comments are closed.