What You Should Think About Torture

October 15, 2007

“Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him.

–Umberto Eco

For its time, the Constitution of the United States was profoundly innovative. Contemporary regimes had acknowledged the importance of giving the public a voice in government. Yet in that time some electoral processes were regarded as ploys to maintain support for despots. Even the British system was more of a compromise to balance autocracy with democracy than it was the authentic process of self-government enjoyed by Britons today. In fact, the practice of royal involvement in selecting senior government ministers was only decisively curtailed years after the American Revolutionary War.

Real freedom requires that ordinary citizens be given strong protection against powerful authorities. After all, how free would free speech be if voices of dissent could simply be branded traitors and subjected to horrific punishments? American civil liberties are a complex web of interdependent legal guarantees. Eliminate the right to question witnesses offering testimony against you, and the right to a jury trial becomes much less meaningful. Permit enforcers to use brutal methods while conducting interrogations of indeterminate length, and it matters less if cruel treatment is excluded from official criminal penalties.

The Bill of Rights offers protection from just those sorts of abuses. Some of its architects had no qualms about exploiting slave labor, and several decades passed between emancipation and federal action to prosecute perpetrators of racially motivated lynching. Yet their desire to limit the role of hate and vengeance in criminal justice had a hand in establishing the newborn United States as a beacon of real liberty.

This century has seen far too many appeals to hate and vengeance. Perhaps some of the problems confronting our nation today cannot be solved without resorting to brute force. Even in these instances, crafting the most effective national response does not require indulging rage. I believe the best of our elite special forces would uniformly concur that violence dealt by a furious motions and inflamed anger is inferior to that dealt by steady hands under the guidance of a calculating mind. This cool rationality is even more vital far from the physical fight, where counterterrorism policy takes shape.

Thus it is all the harder to understand why a few key figures in the federal government are so intent on taking hatred and vengeance as far as an enfeebled system of checks and balances will permit. Though this may have yielded short term political dividends, serious long term problems reverse a popularity surge even as they also weaken our nation’s position in the world. An ethical high ground is abandoned whenever respect for principles of due process, especially in the area of treating captives humanely, is abandoned.

Even if the Constitution’s strictures are not applied to American government’s treatment of foreign nationals, failure to respect the underlying universal principles undermines any attempt to wield moral authority. To make matters worse, the sitting administration has rewritten the rules to circumvent international standards related to either civilian or military detainees. By sidestepping a clearcut either/or method of classifying prisoners (not to mention casting an extremely wide net in the initial Afghani roundup,) the President established a legal basis for captive abuse without limit.

Alan Dershowitz, deservedly regarded as a great legal scholar, has argued that even the most brutal sort of torture should be legally sanctioned in a ticking bomb situation. It is clear that he was speaking literally, but it seems as if the White House decided to heed his words in the context of “ticking bomb” as a metaphor for a wide variety of suspected terrorist threats. Using statements like those of Dershowitz for political cover, the administration ignored the relevance of immediacy and credibility in evaluating what suspected dangers might justify the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners languishing in our legal black holes.

As an aside, it is interesting the role the television series 24 has played in this debate. The President himself has made reference to the lead character, Jack Bauer, in discussing approaches to stopping terrorism. However, that character’s annual involvement in fictional ticking bomb situations highlights an important point. A hero placed in such dire straits should be able to transcend the law for the good of the nation.

I disagree with Dershowitz’s position that torture should take place within a legal framework. Keeping it out of a legal framework does nothing to prevent a national savior from demanding the right to explain his extralegal action to a jury. It is hard to imagine any collection of twelve Americans who would sentence a man to imprisonment for brutalizing an actual terrorist as a necessary measure to successfully avert some mass casualty event that was otherwise inevitable and mere hours from actually occurring. On the other hand, it is not so hard to imagine a military or covert interrogation expert, actively encouraged to practice brutality by directives from superiors, torturing human beings for no good purpose whatsoever.

Though basic human decency goes to the core of this issue, there is more to it than that. Effective torture can be a quick way to get answers from an otherwise unresponsive captive. These quick answers may not be truthful answers, particularly when those subjected to torture may not actually know relevant facts. Tens of thousands of Europeans (and thanks to our Puritan heritage, more than a few early Americans) were publicly executed after confessing under torture to the crime of wielding unholy supernatural powers. Of course none of these people actually could fly on broomsticks or cause pestilence through ritual magic or perpetrate any other such fairy tale villainy. It was the real ability of torture to produce misleading information, and not any real manifestation of black magic in Renaissance Europe, that prompted so much horrific carnage.

In efforts to neutralize terrorist threats, a high price must be paid for acting on misleading information. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible explores this theme in great detail. Based closely on historical accounts of the Salem witch trials, it dramatizes how torture and threat of torture caused innocent people to incriminate other innocent people. Wider and wider the Satanic conspiracy seemed to spread. Initial false accusations snowballed as almost everyone subjected to torture sought relief by telling cruel authorities whatever it seemed they wanted to hear.

In the absence of an actual ticking bomb, there is time enough to conduct far more effective interrogations than torture permits. The right mix of psychology and pharmacology, supplemented with patience as needed, can get at the signal of valuable intelligence without producing the noise of false confessions compelled by extreme duress. After all, assuming a suspected terrorist is in fact a terrorist, which offers greater value to society — the security provided by reliable extraction of organizational and operational knowledge, or the sadistic satisfaction of having vented wrath on a helpless prisoner? Should that initial assumption be in error, all the more reason exists to abstain from decidedly brutal methods.

It would be nice if there were no fringe of radical firebrand clerics in the Middle East sermonizing about the evils of America as the Great Satan. Piling wet blankets onto that incendiary rhetoric would diminish the extremes of zeal from which terrorist fanatics emerge. Why then is it the policy of our government to do just the opposite — taking one opportunity after another to validate the venom of our enemies’ spiritual leaders? I do not know if it is because advocating torture was thought to pay some domestic political dividend or if it is because framers of today’s national policies are simply too ignorant to recognize that torture has no redeeming value outside the rarest and most immediate of security emergencies.

At least for today, I also do not know precisely what the primary source for this letter happens to be. However, it seems credible to me. It is an elegant plea from intelligence and law enforcement agents to be relieved of the burden to employ torture in place of more reliable and more humane techniques. It may be true that terrorists have no respect for the lives of their victims. Does that ever justify sinking to so low a level ourselves? If there is any distinction to be made between civilization and barbarity, surely this is it. We would do well to all take a stand against torture together, as one nation united under the noble principles so many great Americans have given their lives to defend.