The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More Torture Thoughts

The question of torture and the war on terror certainly struck a nerve. Because I saw nothing but polite (well, ALMOST nothing) discussion on this incredible topic, I thought I'd add my two cents.

1) First of all, it is impossible for me to think about this without imagining myself, members of my family, and friends in such a situation. You might think I have too much empathy, but there are things I am certain of, and one of them is that no legal system will ever exist that does not scoop up the innocent as well as the guilty. I am also certain, based on my life in this country, that when the penalties are imposed upon those who look, speak, or act differently, we behave as if they are less human, and that we have the right to define and control them. The insane disparity between the penalties for powdered cocaine ("us") and crack ("them") is a classic instance. Incarcerated? Killed or executed? Those things I can wrap my mind around. Torture? I don't think so.

2) Does torture work better than other interrogation techniques? This is a critical question. The Straw Man version is: "torture doesn't work." I'm sure that people say this, which opens the door to saying "torture has never produced actionable intelligence" which is absurd. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. If you try to defend a comment like that, the opposition needs only find a single instance in which torture techniques have "worked" to invalidate your entire position. Easy. In my mind, the consensus is that torture is LESS EFFECTIVE than other techniques, as well as actually increasing the resistance of the enemy, and making their recruitment easier. This would seem to be obvious, IF you extend equal humanity to our enemy. On the other hand, if your position is that Islam, or Arabs, or Brown-skinned people are inferior, then of COURSE you mock this idea. "They" are all just subhuman death machines with no respect for human life. The rougher you treat 'em, the better I like it. Yeah, right.

3) Does the inclusion of torture hamper or improve our attempts to make our nation safer? This is a better question. Remember that the end goal isn't breaking wills or bodies. It is making our country safer and freer and better. You don't protect America by destroying the very values most Americans hold dear. On the other hand, it is critical that we be able to protect ourselves, and accurate information is one of the tools we need. Another is the emotional image of America in the eyes of the world. If I'm a customs officer in, say, Egypt, and I suspect a crate has a nuclear weapon headed for America, and my cousin was tortured by the CIA, I think that I'd have to be a saint not to have an urge to turn a blind eye.

4) If torture isn't efficient, why does it continue to be used? I think that you have a variety of reasons. Ignorance, vengefulness, honest difference of opinion. And simple sadism. What percentage of the human race enjoy the infliction of pain on other people? Five percent? Don't you think some of those people get into positions of power?

5)The ticking time bomb scenario. This is just the worst. How about this: "if someone put a gun to our son's head, honey, and said if I don't screw this blond he'll die...would it be O.K? Yes?" Citing the extreme example to justify non-extreme cases (there has, to my knowledge, NEVER actually been a "ticking time bomb" case) is just jerking the emotions of those who are easily frightened. Here's a better question: if there was a "ticking time bomb" that would kill your family, and you had a person under your control who could stop it, and you believed torture was efficient...why in the hell would you need the law to approve? Given that situation, I'd torture the hell out of someone. Throw my ass in jail? Fine. But I WOULDN'T WANT MY ACTIONS TO BE LEGAL. In fact, I would be less likely to want to protect, die for, be jailed for, a country that DID legalize it.

7) The natural human instinct for revenge, and the sense that "we" are more human than "they" is incredibly powerful, and mostly unconscious. I grew up on the wrong side of this one, in a world in which dark-skinned people were considered naturally more criminal, less intelligent, more disposable. All my life I've dealt with that, and still see traces of it. We'll never get rid of it completely. And if you don't take into account that the hissing, coiling horrors of the human heart can be marginalized but not destroyed, if you don't grasp that those monsters are waiting for good and decent people to say: "sure, go ahead", then you see a very different world than I see. And remember: they aren't going to say it. They will use the most reasonable arguments imaginable. But what they want is a reason to do it. If, and only if, torture was the only way to get quality information, it might be necessary to turn suspects (and remember that they are suspects. Torture advocates never, to my knowledge, say "alleged" or "suspected.") over to the men in hoods. To our shame. There is a story by Ursula LeGuin called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" about the cost of paradise. If the cost was the misery of one innocent child, would you take it?

That just isn't my idea of paradise. And remember: once it's on the books, it could happen to you, or your children. And if you don't think that's true, I can promise you that you aren't black, or gay. You'd know better.

8) The most bizarre thing about politics is the "strange bedfellows" aspect. The fact that under the same tent you have Christians who speak of the sanctity of human life, and the primacy of morality, and those who approve of torture. The "who would Jesus torture?" question is a valid one. Now, the left has just as much hypocrisy, but in all honesty this one really gets to me. If you want to be utilitarian about it, so be it. But to hear some of the same people claim moral superiority and simultaneously stump for something every civilized country condemns...this is loathsome.

9) All my life, I've heard dictatorships and fascist states justifying their grotesque treatment of the helpless as state business, what they needed to do to protect themselves. And rejected those arguments. And my teachers, politicians, preachers, and everyone else ALL condemned what they said, and said it was cowardice and subhuman. And that that was one of the things that made America great. And that distinction was and is one of the things that made me think that, yes, this country was exceptional, and worth dying for. And now, just because we got bitch-slapped on 9/11 we're supposed to throw all that away? Do we now say "oh! I understand why Nazis did what they did! We were wrong to persecute those Japanese!" No. It's different because we NEED to do it. We're not just like every other empire or country or Mafia don who needs to extract information from the unwilling. Not at all. And by the way...if you think that the only techniques we use are the ones we've admitted to publicly, you are, not to put too fine a line on it, lying to yourself.


So there are my thoughts. A country has the absolute right to defend itself. Torture is less effective (but not non-effective). It is also corruptive, and aids recruitment efforts. Some say that people who flew planes into buildings to kill innocent people don't need reasons. That strikes me as being such a basic misunderstanding of human nature that I have no words, but here are a few anyway:

a) The people who flew planes into buildings are DEAD. What we have to deal with now is the people who might do it in the future.

b) If you don't think that the suicide bombers had reasons to do what they do, you are probably harboring negative feelings about the entire class called "Arabs" or "Muslims." "They" are just crazy and evil. You need to announce your beliefs honestly and clearly. The natural people for you to speak to are Arabs and Muslims who believe that Europeans and Christians are naturally evil. You guys should all go into a room together and lock the door behind you. You're basically the same. The rest of us, white and black, Christian and Muslim, who believe that human beings everywhere are basically the same and that those who believe in both strength AND compassion will work it all out--but radicals on both sides have to be marginalized first.

And frankly, the people who think "they" are less than us overlaps strongly, STRONGLY, with the group that believed blacks were inferior. That gays should be denied basic human rights. Octavia Butler believed that there were two things that could doom the human race:

1) The tendency to believe that humans are arranged into hierarchies of basic quality.

2) The tendency to believe that we and those who look/think like us are higher on the hierarchy.

It is the seed of bigotry. If it was absolutely necessary to open that door to protect our children, I would regretfully open it. But I see no evidence that it is "absolutely necessary." I think that the good and decent people who support the use of enhanced interrogation should be very aware that there are monsters who are delighted with their decisions.


Anonymous said...

"Christian and Muslim, who believe that human beings everywhere are basically the same"

One of the benefits of being an atheist is that you don't have to assume that religions spring from God or the Devil or anything supernatural. You can assume that they are social structures created from their historical environment. You can then judge them not on their truth value, because you think all religions are unfalsifiable hypothesis and hence informational null-sets, and instead look at how religions empirically effect the world. If some religions have a strong tendency to result in societies that don't advance science or have poor economies or poor human rights standards, you can judge that just as you judge political systems, as both are entirely human creations (to you). Judging Islam as an inferior religion is no different to you than judging Communism or Fascism or Divine Right Monarchy as an inferior political system. You can say that while everyone is running the same hardware, as the human race has a rather small degree of genetic difference in it, the software IS different and DOES produce different results. This can be completely consistent with your worldview.

Pagan Topologist said...

I am opposed to torture in any situation I can think of. I am cynical enough to believe that it is always motivated by a sadistic desire for revenge against and power over "them", not by any real belief that it is effective, generally.

Marty S said...

Steve: Once again I tend to look at the world through a mathematicians eyes. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. The number of Muslims who we might rightly consider terrorists are probably in the neighborhood of 1000th of 1 percent of this population. So it hardly makes sense to blame Muslims in general for the acts of the very very few. On the other hand lets suppose that a loyal American Muslim statistician was given the task of developing a mathematical sieve to select individuals or groups that merited watching as suspected terrorists. I am fairly confident that being Muslim would play a big part in that mathematical sieve, because while only a very small percent of Muslims are terrorists a much larger percent of terrorists are Muslim. This is not racial or religious bias, this is simple mathematics. I look at the torture/surveillance issue in the same mathematical view. Lets assume that there are terrorists out there who would like to commit another terrorist act like the one on 9/11. Lets assume that there has been no acts of that magnitude since 9/11 because of the effectiveness of the counter terrorist activities under the Bush administration. Now if no attacks occur under the Obama administration then what we statisticians call the posterior probability of the abandoned techniques being necessary would go way down and since all of us would prefer those techniques not be used we would continue the Obama administrations practices. However, if a successful attack were to occur during Obama's term in office then the posterior probability that the Bush policies were more effect would be high. In this case one must decide which is really the more moral position allowing thousands to die by doing nothing or using what it takes to stop the attack before it occurs. In general I'm not in favor of murder and I'm not in favor of torture, but if torturing one person would have given me the information I needed to murder Adolf Hitler before he murdered 6 million Jews, I would have felt perfectly justified.

Audie said...

Very nice essay. If I'm ever stupid enough to find myself in the position of arguing this, hopefully I can just send them to your post.

Anonymous said...

To clarify, I DESPISE Islam, not Muslims. I maintain the vast majority of Muslims compromise authentic Islamic practice in order to lead civilized, non-psychotic lives. Like any sensible person, I’ve boundless praise for the achievements of Muslims during their “Golden Era”, when elsewhere humans, Christian or Pagan, Black or White, proudly cultivated ignorant savagery. Further (although this may snack of Archie Bunker and Lionel) I've had rich friendships with Muslims that I cherish. I've even know a Somali lady who was as exquisitely beautiful as she was devout. Ten years later, I remember her lovely cinnamon face, the kindness that animated her gentile lithe frame, and swear I'd marry her, Atheism be "damned".
That said, my Atheism and compulsion to intellectual honesty don't permit me to ignore disturbing truths. Possibly the most disturbing truth of our times is that a sixth of humanity professes devotion to a creed that extols slavery (submission) as the highest virtue, that decrees the prosecution of violent world conquest (Jihad) a sacred obligation, and that mandates bondage for women and “infidels” and DEATH for Atheists and apostates. Far surpassing disturbing is the rapid expansion of this avowedly militaristic, misogynistic, martyrdom-obsessed creed into the most marginal, desperate areas of the globe, in an era that promises to deliver the means of human extinction into the humblest hands by century’s end. As an Atheist, I ‘m constrained to confront with utmost hostility a faith that explicitly demands my destruction. As a human being who devotes his intellectual energies to ensuring that we survive and reach our ultimate potential among the stars, I’m constrained to seek and, if need be, to use, ANY solution that preserves us collectively, that ensures that the glorious times to come aren’t martyred to primitive, ignorant folly.

Ethiopian Infidel

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Steve, thanks for the essay. As I recall, you didn't start out believing that torture is a disastrously bad practice-- what changed your mind?

I'm curious because I'd like to get better at convincing people that torture is bad, and I've got empirical evidence that moral intuitions don't transfer very easily.

Marty: You're leaving too much out of your math. We don't know enough about all the possibilities of terrorism, and we do know that Timothy McVeigh killed quite a few and Harris and Kliebold (Columbine) would have killed hundreds if they'd been better at explosives.

Ethics are a way of improving the long term odds of good outcomes. Your idea of keeping track of all the Muslims (Arabs? Muslim Arabs?) and torturing some of them makes it less likely that they want or will be permitted to help in the search for terrorists-- and one of the US's recent problems is not knowing enough about the cultures the people we're in conflict with are from. Justice is useful, it's not just excessive niceness.

Is there any reason to think you can get the kind of information you want by torturing people? Have you considered the costs of adding inaccurate confessions to your information stream?

Ethiopian Infidel: I don't think you get huge amounts of practical information about a religion by studying its holy texts. Look at the range of Christianities gotten out of the same (or quite similar) Bibles. If all you had was the Christian bible, could you have predicted Catholicism in its many ethnicities and eras? And the Seventh Day Adventists? It's the same for Islam.

Steven Barnes said...

1) Ethiopian Infidel: thank you for your honesty.
2)Marty S.--if torturing someone would save TEN Jews, I'd do it. IF prying the toenails off one son of a bitch would just save my daughter, I'd whistle while I worked. But I wouldn't want it to be legal. What kind of weakling needs government approval to do the right thing? And if it's the wrong thing, I don't want my children carrying my load for me.
3) Nancy: I used to believe that torture was efficient. Once I learned that it was less effective than other techniques, I began to wonder about its true motivations. And the answers I came to scared the hell out of me.

poltergeist said...

What Hard Ball Interrogation ISN'T.

It isn't in the more than general sense a or the first choice or option exercised.

It isn't a means of getting a confession. It's a means of getting intelligence in the intelligence game to either confirm, refute, or eliminate a particular set of givens or suspicions you may already have in your possession in several different combinations.

It's not a prosecution tool as torture is thought of in this discussion. The interrogator's job is not to gather evidence to send a subject to prison. It's intelligence motivated. Big difference. Even if admitted at a military tribunal it could not be used as evidence in accordance with the UCMJ, Naval Regulations, etc.

All possible subjects, detainees, prisoners, what have you, are not subjected to hard ball interrogation. Point: No matter how much pain a person can inflict you can't get a private to tell you what only an officer would know in the grander scheme of things. Say, a captured suicide bomber cannot possibly tell you of other suicide bombers or bombing plans. This would violate intelligence rules on compartmentalization, but he/she could tell you a lot of other helpful details.

And there's even more to what hard-ball interrogation isn't.


If you think water boarding is tough, you should see the effects of isolation and climate-control.

Now, if you believe that to be overly cruel, then do you have the same forceful objections to solitary confinement in our penal institutions? Can you reconcile one and scream foul at the other?

Through natural pain relieving secretions sent to the bloodstream from the brain to just mere passing-out there is only so much pain for so long, assuming it's all physical, a person will feel after a time. A tolerance can be built up. There is NO such relief from being driven insane by isolation. None. Which do you suppose most people would prefer? A rough 30-45 minutes of stress positions and water boarding, or a lifetime of psychosis?

Hard as this may be to believe, a subject will tell his interrogators which method will work best on him, time allowing. Subjects have been known to withstand the best of physical grillings, yet tell-all at the sight of a rat or get a whiff of a very very rotten potato which is a dead ringer smell of a decomposing corpse. It just depends. Take Mr. Khalid Mohammad for instance. Anybody feel he was treated too harshly?

When politely asked if he knew of any others with information or terroristic plans he casually replied, "You will see". Oh really now? We will? OK. I wasn't there, but news got around that from that point life got harder for him and it culminated in his water boarding then at which time he found it a little more beneficial to lose the snide act and be a little more profitably forthcoming. There's more anecdotal evidence, but oh well.

Interrogators (not the "softening up" kids) are either serving military or military-trained regardless of who signs their checks. If we're speaking strictly US government employed interrogators there's a semi-frequent system of fail-safe, checks and balances in place initially and throughout ones interrogating career. Psyches and Shrinks. Nobody wants a bunch of Mengelas running loose. This system isn't perfect nor is it fool-proof, but then neither is the one that allows those civilians with badges and guns to patrol our streets. They take orders, and those orders can be awfully AWFULLY confusing and even contradictory at times with very little, if any, wiggle room. Interrogators are even sold-out by the higher ups occasionally. Ask "Keith Hall". He got a little rough with one or two of the people that were in on blowing up the Marine Barracks in Beirut back in 1983 and paid the professional price when those in the Reagan Administration decided they didn't want in on Hezbollah after telling the intelligence field operators to go after them full-tilt bogey. Thanks politicians. Par for the course.

Is hard-ball necessary or even preferred all of the time? No. It's pretty much the last option. But an option nevertheless. Circumstance and Timing would seem to dictate it's usage. Has President Obama totally and for the rest of his term or terms fully eradicated it?

We shall see. All it would take to put it back into play; assuming it wasn't outsourced and kept quiet, is for the general populace to make it politically uncomfortable for the CIC to ignore revitalization. It's not like this hasn't happened before and either way. What's nice now might be Dante's Lowest Rung in the future.

Finally ... NO professional and sane interrogator will tell you hard-ball is the key all the time, some of the time, preferred, personally enjoyed, or such the like. Is it ineffective? Sure. All of the time? No.

Anonymous said...

Take Mr. Khalid Mohammad for instance. Anybody feel he was treated too harshly?I do. Not because he "didn't deserve" anything; because we don't deserve the result (outlined in Steve's piece above). The consequences (moral and practical) are too great. Not worth it.

In WWII, German soldiers who'd fought in WWI told their sons to surrender to an American the first chance they had, because they were sure to be well-treated. We're not that country any more; I want us to be that country again.

Also, I notice you use the euphemism 'hard ball interrogation' instead of the more straightforward term 'torture'. If you think it's appropriate (even sometimes), why not call it by its name? Is there some distinction that you're drawing between "hard ball interrogation" and "torture" in your mind? There's none in reality. KSM was tortured. Waterboarding is torture.

If you're going to advocate that our ideals, not only as Americans but as human beings, should be discarded, and that we should behave as inhumanely as necessary to get what we want, have the guts to say so, and call things what they are.

And any principle you abandon when it costs you wasn't a real principle of yours in the first place.

poltergeist said...

"Also, I notice you use the euphemism 'hard ball interrogation' instead of the more straightforward term 'torture'. If you think it's appropriate (even sometimes), why not call it by its name?".

Why? Because neither is synonymous with the other. I call it by the names and terms used as the time by those in the profession that occasionally came around to drop pearls of wisdom to the sometimes field-related tyros. Calling things what they truly are and what's preferred for whatever reason or reasons would seem to be an American pastime. People "pass on". Really now? Would not dead be more accurate? Here's a good one. Obfuscation. Lying seems more appropriate to me. We could go on all-day on that one, but in the end, "A rose..." still applies. I just call it hard-ball because that was used back in my early military days and it just stuck and for no other reason. Call it shop-talk if you like.

Plus, while interrogation can incorporate torture in it's purest sense, torture isn't synonymous with interrogation nor is it an interrogation staple. I blame the news media for the public lack of differentiation. There is a very big difference.

"Is there some distinction that you're drawing between "hard ball interrogation" and "torture" in your mind?".

Yes, very much so. In my mind. Also in minds of the various staffs (to include psychologists and psychiatrists)of various training cadres, individual instructors of interrogation techniques at various places and spaces, and I would think various practitioners of interrogation, both foreign and domestic. I don't feel particularly alone in this estimation.

Now if you believe that torture is objective this won't phase you, but from a, well, from another view I can tell you without any equivocation whatsoever that torture is HIGHLY subjective.

Previously I brought out that one of the very best forms of torture is isolation from ALL human contact, and if not all, as much as possible.

Now, to the extreme degree that solitary confinement is used EXCLUSIVELY in federal max prisons and quite a few state maxie pens as well, where a person only gets one-hour of out time per-day and where there's NO doubt whatsoever that people have been driven insane by this in prison (watch Lockdown on MSNBC sometime and see for yourself)is that universally described and held to be torture in se by the vast majority of the USA public and something that most would abolish? Not hardly. Again, there is a VERY big difference between hard-ball interrogation and torture. To me, torture appears in large part to be kicks or get even driven. Frankly psychological interrogation stress is a LOT better than physical pain. Two things though:

1. Time might not be on your side for a host of reasons, and I don't mean the overused film and TV scenarios either. By definition intelligence itself is time-sensitive.

2. I forgot what #2 was. Had to run. The tree surgeon needed a consult.

"There's none in reality. KSM was tortured. Waterboarding is torture".

Capture itself can be torture. In fact, it's the beginning stage of interrogation, did you know that? Feelings of guilt, removed from previously relatively secure surroundings, letting your friends, allies, confederates down. And, then not knowing what's in store for you. All of that, and more, can be and usually is torture. Wanna hear a good one?

Long ago the KGB and GRU used to recruit masochists for low-level intel purposes and feed them information to be told (to the Brits as I understood it) at the perfect time to make it appear very convincing. Guess who dropped the dime to set them up? The KGB and GRU. Neat huh? Truly diabolical. Haven't the foggiest if it had the desired effects.

Lee said...

while only a very small percent of Muslims are terrorists a much larger percent of terrorists are MuslimThis is one of the myths pro-torture people use to justify it to themselves. Generally it means that they're not counting an awful lot of white Christian terrorists. Sometimes it's because they think that the targets of the white Christian terrorists "deserve it" and that makes the perps not terrorists after all.

Oh, and Steve -- you forgot to include pagans and women in your groups of people who know it could happen to them.

Anonymous said...

Part of the issue probably arises from the increased legality of our culture. Back in WWII it was less likely that people would get sued or formally brought up on charges than it is today. When people are more likely to break out the lawyers, people want laws to protect them if they do stuff that in the past would get overlooked or ignored. Hence the attempt to formalize and legalize interrogation techniques that in the past were more likely to be performed with no public scrutiny, ever.

Anonymous said...

"Generally it means that they're not counting an awful lot of white Christian terrorists."

Far be it for a Black Atheist to defend White Christian Terrorists, but truth will out. Facts are, outside of Northern Ireland and The Balkans, and baring the odd homicidal anti-abortionist or Timothy McVeigh, White Christians have settled down during the last century. The various Christian sects appear content to spread their gospel legally, relying on persuasion, indoctrination and legislation, as opposed to violence. By contrast, the Jihad to bow all humanity before Allah marches forward bloodily throughout the world.To cite one example: no current Christian effort rivals the horror of the genocidal Jihad being waged against African Animists and Christians in the Sudan, with the FULL support of the Arab Muslim states. Wherever one looks in the world, the vista displays Muslims in mortal conflict with others: Muslims against Jews in Palestine, Muslims, against, Christians and Duse in Lebanon, Muslims against Christians and Animists throughout Africa, Muslims against Hindus in India, Muslims against Buddhists in Thailand, Muslims against Atheists in China, Muslims against Christians, Jews and Atheists in the various US Middle-Eastern conflicts. Although we must take scrupulous care to avoid blanket prejudice (in their daily affairs, most Muslims are peaceful, decent people) we also cannot ignore such pervasive trends, or the disquieting reality such imply.

Unknown said...

Another useful torture link:

Description: "Two veteran intelligence officials write that this country has a long history of successful interrogations – based on seduction, not coercion. Torture not only violates our core values, but leads to misinformation."

Mike R said...

Anyone want to guess how many fatal terrorist attacks there were against abortion doctor's in the US during George W. Bush's two terms in office? I know, but I'm curious what people's guesss are if they don't look it up.

pecunium said...

Steve: Sigh... Is is possible to get someone to give you actionable information with torture? Maybe.

Is is possible to use torture sytematically to collect useful information/intelligence. No.

The first, non-provable. The case which most clearly comes to mind at the moment was a Lt. Col. in Iraq in 2003. They were getting harrassing fire (usually referred to as, "snipers").

They grabbed a guy whom they assumed was involved. The Col. threatened to kill him. Put his pistol next to his head and pulled the trigger.

The guy pointed to a house.

They attacked it. Someone ran away. They stopped getting the harrassing fire.

Was that useful intel? We will never know. There are too many variables. They'd been suffering the potshots for days. Maybe the shooter moved on.

Maybe the guy they grabbed was the shooter (they let him go) and he decided to quit.

Then there are the second order effects. This was all done out doors, in broad daylight. Iraqis saw it. What did that do to their ideas of the US troops?

Will other people do what that Lt. Col. did? Yes. I've seen it used as an example of how torture works (never mind that he was relieved of command, and put to pasture), because, "he stopped the sniper."

I can give you any number of reasons (and have; here and elsewhere) of why the information one gets from torture isn't usful. The most simple is, there is no way to verify it. One has to either assume it is correct, and act, or go to all the work of doing non-coercive interrogations to verify it.

At which point it doesn't matter if it works, it doesn't save time. Further, once a prisoner has been tortured, all other information is suspect. You can't know what is true, and what is meant to prevent more toture.

Because once honest ignorance isn't allowed (and torture works on the assumption the subject is lying when he denies knowledge), everything which is said is suspect.

So I will still say, "torture doesn't work", full stop.