Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Torture Taboo

Why does tough interrogation get such a bad rap in the US? Certainly, much of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib was senseless and shameful, but this should by no means push the US to tone down its interrogation techniques.

One commonly hears this protest: “How can anyone take seriously US pronouncements on human rights in light of how it treats its own prisoners?” At best, this is rather flimsy logic. In times of war, an army’s chief objective almost always involves killing its enemy. Why is killing OK in war, but tough interrogating—which is less terminal than killing—to gain strategic advantages not?

But what if the tortured prisoner had no valuable intelligence to begin with? The nature of war, even a just war, makes collateral damage unavoidable. General Sherman’s statement “War is hell” was prescriptive as much as descriptive.

There are plenty of documented cases where intense interrogation has yielded crucial information, so the onus is on the dissenters to explain why torture should not be used. What worthwhile value or moral principle does an anti-interrogation stance promote? And why—in the political world of value tradeoffs—does that principle outweigh the advantages that tough interrogation has been known to produce?


Anonymous said...

I guess the big question is what constitutes intense interrogation opposed to outright torture and how do you limit the practice to only the former. It would seem that in the need to get this valuable information it is very easy for the torturer to move from one to the other without truly realizing it. Therefore intense interrogation is a very slippery slope that will eventually to cases of torture. As to the value or moral principle i guess being anti-torture is the same as being anti-genocide or anti-chemical/biological weapons. ITs something that the international community has declared taboo and so it should remain so. I guess just asking some vietnam vets would give you plenty of reason why not country should promote the practice of torture.

Anonymous said...

I want to start by stating that I find your argument morally bankrupt. While your at it, why not add "What's the big deal with rape? War is hell!"

You equate the methodical, intentional, and sadistic harm of a defenseless prisoner to the killing of an enemy combatant. This is a tenuous comparison at best and I cannot correlate the two. A torture chamber is not a battlefield, a Spanish dungeon is not the plains of Poland, and the Joker is not the Batman.

You also state (without providing a shred of evidence) that intense interrogation has provided us with useful information. I challenge you to provide examples and, for every example you give, I'll counter with others where poor information, obtained under duress, caused the victim to admit to false information. Under torture I could get you to admit that you are Osama Bin Laden, is that “actionable intelligence?”

cyrus said...

The above comments contain two basic arguments against torture: it’s not right; and it’s not useful. These are connected arguments since we’re dealing with value tradeoffs. That is, just as wartime killing is countenanced for a greater good, so also with torture. To protest that Sherman’s “War is hell” dictum also justifies atrocities such as rape misses the point: interrogation is used to advance the policy underlying the war; rape does not advance policy and is therefore out of bounds. And it is worth noting that in most cases the prisoner has a choice: if he tells what he knows, there will be no need for interrogation.

The second argument contends that torture is not useful since it can produce confusing or misleading results. Perhaps it can, but so can any type of intelligence gathering. It’s the job of trained interrogators, like trained analysts, to weigh and discern the veracity of obtained information before it goes to commanders and policymakers, and the US has practitioners skilled to do this. So, wartime torture to obtain intelligence is useful—which means that it can serve to advance policy—and thus, like killing, is morally justified as an unpleasant yet acceptable value tradeoff.