Torture, Reloaded

Eddie of Hidden Unities of kind enough to recently share his thoughts with torture with several other bloggers and myself through email . He also, graciously, allowed me to respond to them through my blog. So, with thanks to Eddie, let’s begin:

The anti-torture crowd is patiently waiting for any solid evidence [methods such as torture] work.

Indeed, and I’m patiently waiting for any solid evidence that ternary trees speed up the performance of object-relational databases.

By beginning his critique on torture with a critique on efficacy, Eddie puts his weakest foot forward. There surely is a moral case against torture, as there is a moral case against war. By framing his whole debate in “it just doesn’t work,” though, he opens his theory for disproof.

Such a strategy is dangerous on many levels. It would suddenly allow all many of ghastly tortures if they can be shown to work, in any way. Additionally the use of rhetoric to argue fact debases the opponent of torture. A fact is true or not, and a fact as technical as “does torture provide any military benefit” should not hang on who can reference pop culture better.

Thus far, there has been no such [evidence that torture works].

Eddie concludes, that when reporting success with Technique X is a felony, a lack of reported success with Technique X shows that said technique does not work.

The anti-torture crowd, by criminalizing the technique, effectively end any systematic investigation into its utility. As it is, the only people to know whether it works or not are medium- to high- level decision makers who have little interest in political debates.

Meanwhile, a variety of techniques that the FBI, CIA, CID/NCIS, Interpol, etc. have been using over the years continue to work, with mountains of evidence to prove their worth.

We might equally ask why there is a need for helicopters, when we already have planes and horses?

The choice is rarely so clear. A tactic that has not been proven to work and has indeed proven over and over again to be counterproductive versus tried and true techniques that seem to be effective.

That the anti-torture crowd must make a false choice, with such poor rhetoric, when one does not exist is hardly clarifying. Torture may or may be one useful technique out of many, perhaps more efficacious in this-or-that situation than other techniques.

This reminds me of troubleshooting electronic gear. Everyone who has ever done so would love to believe the old myth that if you kick, threaten, punch and/or shake the equipment, whatever “gremlins” are interfering with its normal operations will cease to exist. Unfortunately, outside the occasional appearance of Lady Luck in such matters, these mythical methods don’t work, and indeed can damage the gear or make the situation worse. In the end, we have to break out some tools, pull out a schematic or three, drink a Red Bull and go through the steps. Ditto for the difficult, oft boring job of interrogation.

Eddie argues well against fingertip-feeling, against allowing technicians who have a “fingertip feeling” of the correct solution to proceed on that intuition.

And Eddie’s criticism indeed have a place in six sigma organizations, of which the United States military is not (thank God) one.

An aside: The fact that hacks like Justice Scalia and Dick Cheney resort to making Jack Bauer comparisons in defending the unproven methods discussed in the article speak volume for the lack of serious thought and study they’ve put into the issue.

Two logical fallacies in one sentence is certainly an accomplishment.

Eddie firstly rejects reductio ad absurdum and second attacks Justice Scalia and Vice President Cheney ad hominem.

The “What you imprison Jack Bauer?” question that defenders of torture put forward is a form of reductio ad absurdum, which seeks to demonstrate the falseness of an opposing belief by showing how that belief leads to a ridiculous outcome. Specifically, the Bauer comparison demonstrates that if torture is banned on moral grounds, then we will morally imprison those who may save lives. Conversely, if torture is banned on practical grounds, then we imprison those who would otherwise be able to demonstrate that it is in fact practical.

It strikes me that the Jack Bauer analogy can be logically argued against in two ways: either by stating that no amount of good possibly outweighs the evil of torture in itself or that upon being demonstrated to be useful in some situation, torture should automatically be legalized in that situation.

Eddie, I believe, instead attacks it dogmatically by saying (if I may summarize) torture is conclusively presumed to be counterproductive, and no fact or set of facts can possibly overturn this presumption.

As someone who takes reason over dogmatism, I disagree with Eddie.

I also disagree with Edide where he attacks analogically reasoning. One might imagine an anti-Platonist: “Ha! How are we to take him seriously, when he brings up the slave-in-the-cave metaphor! How juvenile!” What Eddie and those who argue like him seek to achieve by such attacks is clear: prevent proponents of torture from using examples that are widely understood. This is an old rhetorical trick: mock your opponents for speaking clearly, and then ignore them when they speak technically.

My View: It’s easy enough to pick another argument apart. But what do I put forward?

Simply this: the efficacy of torture is unknown to me, as it relates to information in fields that are both obscure and secretive. As to whether it works or not, I would prefer leaving the call to those in the position to know best: senior technicians.

As to the morality of torture: purposefully inflicting pain on dozens, perhaps hundreds, of suspected enemies is troublesome. So is war. And killing is worse than inflicting pain. Further, it strikes me that long imprisonment is worth than inflicting pain. Further, prisons are notorious for preventing pain to their inmates, even in “humane” and “civilized” countries. So torture is probably on the same level as medium-term prison sentences.

For more on torture, read my April 5, 2007 article.

4 thoughts on “Torture, Reloaded”

  1. There are two cost to torture (BTW, I mean real torture, not just making a bad guy have low self-esteem by say mocking his religion) that are often over looked:

    Micro-Moral costs on those doing the torturing and those around them that may reduce their value to us

    Macro-Moral costs on the side doing the torturing. In the case of the US, if real torture was being being done widespread against out enemies (which I don't believe is the case), that would might lesson the commitment of allies to our cause and move neutrals to oppose us as the US's actions would not seem to match its values.

    I know nothing about real torture and its effectiveness. Are there ways that certain folks could be trained to with stand real torture successfully? Maybe, sure.

    Are the subset of Jihadis that would be subject to torture going to stand up to it or the threat it? I have no idea. I don't think I could for very long.

    Then again, I don't know what to think of a population that has geographic regions that believe that giant badgers are stalking them at night or that US solders have x-ray sunglasses.

    I got to think…if it wasn't successful, professional interrogators would not have it as part of their toolkit. They wouldn't bother with it.

  2. “I got to think…if it wasn't successful, professional interrogators would not have it as part of their toolkit. They wouldn't bother with it.”

    Well in Vietnam, clearly our attrition-based strategies were effective – otherwise we wouldn't have bothered with them! The people who do national security are people just like you and me – they make mistakes.

    As for a takfiri's ability to withstand torture – who better? They believe enough to martyr themselves in fiery death, a needle under the thumbnail up to the wristbone should be easy peasy.

    And Dan, there is data on torture – it is not all secret. Torture has been used in conflicts prior to this one. A few weeks ago I read “The Red Orchestra” by V. E. Tarrant, about the Nazis' efforts in rolling up the Soviet spy networks in Western Europe. The Nazis used torture prolifically. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, by either getting no information, or false information.

    My point of view – when you make the decision to torture someone, you run the very real risk of breaking someone's soul and even killing them for absolutely no gain.

    There are several main points on torture that need to be covered:

    1) Efficacy and the tradeoff between breaking the victim and the information you gain
    2) Morality – its effect on society
    3) Torture's use as a weapon of terror against a subjected population
    4) Use – suppose we find that torture is effective in GWOT – does that mean we use it domestically? The slippery slope concern.
    5) The effect of torture on the torturer – guilt, PTSD, etc. – how do we reintegrate them into society?
    6) World opinion – we lose the moral high ground if we torture, period.

    The most effective interrogation technique is time. Lock someone up in a room, and make the interrogator the only person they interact with. Humans are social animals – the victim will NEED to form a social bond with their interrogator, the victim will identify with the interrogator, and will divulge information freely, and even actively turn against their former co-conspirators.

    An example of this can be found here:

    Merle L. Pribbenow. “The Man in the Snow White Cell: Limits to Interrogation.” In Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 48, No. 1, 2004, pages 59-69.

    Again, if you don't have access, I can send you a pdf! 🙂

  3. Dan,

    As always I find myself on the lesser side because of your superior intellect and argument. I won't argue the issue further save for two small points:

    1- If no other methods were working (i.e. the rapport, trickery, etc.), on certain individuals classified based on firm, conclusive evidence as war criminals or terrorists (not just some bastard fingered by an Afghan/Pakistani/Iraqi looking to get paid by Coalition forces), I would support the use of any and all other methods of torture, provided the issue was handled discreetly.

    This is a major complaint I have about the CIA & military. As my father pointed out to me more than a year ago when Dana Priest broke the “CIA black prisons across Europe/Africa” story, the issue is not so much what they were doing at these black sites but how carelessly and amateurish they were about hiding it. Based on the books, articles and testimony of the reporters and the human rights researchers who investigated the scandal, local citizens and astute observers at airports and police stations offered invaluable leads to them that essentially revealed the story's scope and potential to them. Had the CIA & others actually performed to the standards of their training and their supposed ability, instead of half-assing their way through the deal leaving evidence across the board of their clandestine activity, perhaps no one would ever have known about it.

    In the end, I'll support whatever methods work on the worst of the worst, the ones who IMHO forfeit their humanity when they slaughter civilians in their grisly attacks. Yet I refuse to support such methods under the current US government, military and relevant agencies because they go about it in a lazy, incompetent manner that loses friends and gains enemies.

    2- I've posted about this before but I consider the character of Jack Bauer a fitting symbol of the typical laziness and closed mindedness of the American military, intelligence and political leadership classes. That they look to him for cheap debate points and rhetorical framing is all too symbolic of how they view the world, in some crystal clear good vs. evil vision that is totally out of place with the serious and complex issues we face. Bauer is in a Cowboys vs. Indians world, which is what these people think they are working in. The recent hysteria over paying/bribing/pardoning SOME Sunni insurgents in Iraq to turn on the international jihadist set is illuminative of this. While I don't necessarily support such a plan (because its probably being done with a short time frame in mind rather than the long view that it needs to be considered and planned within), it certainly deserves consideration.

    Besides, if we are going to use TV show characters as examples for what we need to do, I've pointed out Det. Lester Freamon of “The Wire” is where its at. :-).

  4. Eddie,

    Many thanks for the kind words.

    “based on firm, conclusive evidence as war criminals or terrorists”

    A terrible idea. A ghastly one, too.

    Torture is not a form of punishment. Torture is not a form of revenge. Torture is a technique for winning in war. We do not say that we can only kill those who we have “conclusive evidence as war criminals or terrorists” — indeed, by that definition, virtually no military action would be allowed ever!

    Torture should be used as it is useful, and not used as it is not.

    “I would support the use of any and all other methods of torture, provided the issue was handled discreetly.”

    Could you rephrase?

    “how carelessly and amateurish they were about hiding it”

    If your concern is the propaganda effect of torture, then how does joining in the criticism of those who used it, albeit imperfectly, minimize the negative propaganda effects?

    To use a kinetic analogy, imagine if machine gunners who aimed poorly where themselves machine gunned! This is what you are doing: turn those who manage propaganda poorly into victims of propaganda!

    “Had the CIA & others actually performed to the standards of their training and their supposed ability, instead of half-assing their way through the deal leaving evidence across the board of their clandestine activity, perhaps no one would ever have known about it.”

    We do not have a six sigma military, or intelligence community.

    Thank God.

    The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good, as perfection is the enemy of good-enough.

    “the ones who IMHO forfeit their humanity when they slaughter civilians in their grisly attacks.”

    Clearly we are deep into moral/religious rhetoric here, so let me use our own:

    No one can forfeit his humanity.

    First, religious rhetoric:

    As you are responsible for the murder of God, you have a lot of nerve to say that someone else has forfeited his humanity. Because of you, our Christ was tortured, crucified, and died (in that order) in front of his mother. To pretend that you have some right to say someone else forfeited his humanity is stunning in its blindness

    Second, ethnical rhetoric:

    War is not glorious because we fight non-humans. War is a tragedy because we fight humans. The persons we kill, injure, torture, displace, dismember, dislocate, terrorise, and sadden remain persons throughout the process. They have their five senses (until you blind them with pokerse or with a sun-bright explosion), they have a mind like ours that can think but is something more than rational. They have dreams, and memories, families, and hopes.

    You don't get to say “no they don't” because you dislike the choices they have made. At least not while staying honest.

    “That they look to him for cheap debate points and rhetorical framing is all too symbolic of how they view the world,”

    So this — repeated — ad hominen attack against those who argue against you is not done for 'cheap debate points and rhetorical framing'?

    “in some crystal clear good vs. evil vision”

    The only thing, I think, more aggrevating than conmending someone for using 24 as an analogy is not watching it before that condemntation!

    The theme of 24, now that we've jumped off the bridge of intellectual debate into a river of pop cultura trivia, is that there is no crystal clear good vs. evil vision. There is us and them, there is better and worse, and there is situational ambiguity, confusion, and doubt.

    “Besides, if we are going to use TV show characters as examples for what we need to do, I've pointed out Det. Lester Freamon of “The Wire” is where its at. :-).”

    Can't say that I've watched it. My brother prefers The Sheild (another show, sadly, I don't have experience with).

  5. As a standard procedure, did the US military torture POWs to get information to help win WW2? How about captured spies?

    I know for a fact that they gathered large amounts of very useful information.

  6. sonofsamphm1c ,

    The Second World War saw us facing large-scale, state-driven adversaries capable of reciprocity governed by onerous logistics networks. WW2 is an inappropriate metaphor for this long war.

    A better question would be: what range of methods was used during the Indian Wars?

    PurpleSlog,

    A brilliant comment. Very good outlining of costs and benefits, with the important proviso that we debate in the darkness of ignorance. Bravo!

    Adrian,

    “The people who do national security are people just like you and me – they make mistakes.”

    Exactly. Demanding absolute perfection while fighting a war is a recipe of disaster. The “no torture” crowd is composed of such absolutists.

    “As for a takfiri's ability to withstand torture – who better? “

    Who knows, but replacing a scientific view of our enemy as encompassing a range of motivations and abilities with an orientalist assessment which holds that torture is “easy peasy” for them is probably foolish.

    “My point of view – when you make the decision to torture someone, you run the very real risk of “

    I thought you realized that warfare was inherently risky?

    The “several main points” you bring up are all reasonable, and all apply to use of force generally. In their context, a “no torture” policy appears as reasonable as a “no war” policy.

    Social deprivation, as a form of torture designed to elicit information, may well be useful.

  7. You guys and your long war BS – gag me with a spoon. On paper it all sounds so perfect; in reality it's dumber than snot. It's just a rationalization for continuing the screw ups by the habitual screw uppers.

    When the Iraq War started I used to post on the internet that it would most closely resemble the Plains Indian Wars. I don't associate the successes in that war with intelligence gathered by torturing captured combatants.

  8. re: absolutism – I don't demand absolutism from the guys in the field – they make judgment calls. But the policy coming down from the top represents an ideal and should be clear and understandable (i.e. absolute). The policy should be 'no torture' because any slippage from the policy will be magnified by guys under pressure interpreting it a license to torture freely.

    This is related to the “risk” – friction is omnipresent in war and will be forever, because it is inherent in the human element. But that's no reason to abandon efforts to minimize friction and risk. Poker players recognize there will always be luck, but they still try to minimize it by various methods.

  9. “policy coming down from the top represents an ideal and should be clear and understandable (i.e. absolute)”

    Thank God this is not the case in our country! )Though I can recommend a certain cave-dwelling Wahabi organization for those who do want Clear, Understandable, Absolute, Ideal policies to live under…)

    “Poker players recognize there will always be luck, but they still try to minimize it by various methods.”

    So how does allowing only unallowed torture minimize risk?

  10. Torture: some else to consider. How often does our government criticise other governments for using torture? If we turn around and use it ourselves, we look like hypocrits. Not good for our public image.

    TV: My vote is for Section 9 from GHOST IN THE SHELL: STANDALONE COMPLEX:) 'course, I haven't finished the first season, yet, so my mind might change.

    Long War: It depends on how you define it, Samson. Some people use it as an excuse for cockups and delays. But one could also look at it as a reflection of the world we live in. The iron curtain had barely fell when problems erupted all over the world. Problems glossed over, suppressed, or actively caused by Cold War activity burst into gunfire; our military spent most of the 90's putting out fires, and wound up missing a few anyway (Rwanda comes to mind). No sooner was Bosnia and Kosovo put to bed than 911 took place, and we found ourselves in Afganistan, with Darfur and the Congo wars soon to follow. Iraq was a clusterfuck we shouldn't have started, but Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the suffering and potential aggression of Iraq, and the Arab's internal disputes pretty much required that we get more involved there somehow.

    From this point of view, Long War just means “Get used to our soldiers going overseas to fight a lot. It isn't stopping anytime soon, even if we want it too.”

  11. “Clear, Understandable, Absolute, Ideal”

    I'm confused as to your response… directives from the bigwigs are almost always in “ideal” terms because they are broad – they leave the details to their minions to sort out. Thats why the bigwigs are always saying “don't get stuck in the weeds”, “I don't care if its 4 trucks or 5 trucks”, etc.

    “So how does allowing only unallowed torture minimize risk?”

    Legal torture –> bar to use of torture is “do I want to hurt this bad guy?”

    Illegal torture –> bar to use of torture is “am I willing to go to jail?” – i.e., you are SO sure that you can get the information and SO sure that the information will be useful and timely and relevant and will save lives, that you are willing to go to jail to get the information.

    Elaine Scarry's chapter in Sanford Levinson's book “Torture” highlights this point. That book is really good btw.

  12. “directives from the bigwigs are almost always in “ideal” terms because they are broad – they leave the details to their minions to sort out. Thats why the bigwigs are always saying “don't get stuck in the weeds”, “”

    We may have a confusion over terminology here.

    If you are saying there should be a vague ideal of the goodness of not torturing, then of course.

    But if you are saying there should be a law against torturing, or penalties for those that do regardless of the circumstances, then you're confusing the western style of law with totalitarian legal systems.

    Western justice systems specifically deliniate forbidden actions, because all that is not prohibited is allowed. Totalitarian schemes talk in grand ideals, because all that is not specifically allowed is prohibited.

    Before we continue, so we are on the same page, do you see this no-torture “directive” as binding or as merely inspiring?

    “Legal torture –> bar to use of torture is “do I want to hurt this bad guy?”

    Illegal torture –> bar to use of torture is “am I willing to go to jail?” – i.e., you are SO sure that you can get the information and SO sure that the information will be useful and timely and relevant and will save lives, that you are willing to go to jail to get the information.”

    What rational basis is there, then, for not prosecuting soldiers who fire weapons in battle for murder?

    The parallel is obvious

    Legal killing -> bar to killing is “do I want to kill this bad guy?”

    Illegal killing -> bar to killing is “am I willing to go to jail? – i.e., you are SO sure your life is in danger and SO sure that killing the bad guy will end the danger, that you are willing to go to jail to stay alive.”

  13. Torture occurs in an environment in which the victim is no threat – I see no real parallel to killing in war.

    Policies are usually binding – BUT regarding torture, since it occurs in secret, bigwigs are able to give leeway. The policy should be binding, but bigwigs will naturally give clemency if the torture (probably by defining the action as “not torture”) gives actionable intel.

  14. “Torture occurs in an environment in which the victim is no threat”

    Secrecy is not a weapon?

    I have to say, such a belief sounds like those quaint international law professors and their belief in a world where there are soldiers and civilians, and the distinction is so neat and clean.

    “BUT regarding torture, since it occurs in secret, bigwigs are able to give leeway.”

    I prefer a rule of law to rule of men.

    The idea of instituting orwellian corruption — by design — against warfighters — is dangerous, if not necessarily wrong….

  15. “The Second World War saw us facing large-scale, state-driven adversaries capable of reciprocity governed by onerous logistics networks. WW2 is an inappropriate metaphor for this long war. …”

    The intelligence gathering lessons of WW2 are perfectly appropriate to any discussion of intelligence gathering.

    The Japanese considered us subhuman monsters. They were trained to hate us. In general they preferred death to surrender. They were capable of being just as fanatical and brutal as any Muslim ever dreamed of being.

  16. sonofsamphm1c,

    “The intelligence gathering lessons of WW2 are perfectly appropriate to any discussion of intelligence gathering.”

    Analogical reasoning is only valid when the underlying analogy is valid. Your use of the word “any” reveals the shallowness of your statement.

    “The Japanese considered us subhuman monsters. They were trained to hate us. In general they preferred death to surrender. They were capable of being just as fanatical and brutal as any Muslim ever dreamed of being.”

    Perhaps, but this does not address my criticism that the Japanese Empire (or the German Reich, for that matter) was a large-scale state capable of reciprocity governed by an onerous logistics network. That is not true for al Qaeda or al Qaeda in Iraq.

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