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May 30, 2007


Hilzoy, I think you are both right and wrong. Its clear that for this crowd torture *isn't* prsumptively wrong. Actually, torture and all forms of wanton destruction and cruelty are presumptively *right.* Cheney's recent speech to the West Point graduates essentially says this right out--though we "hold things" dear and "have ideals" they must be thrown out entirely, without regard to their history, honor, utility when dealing with "the enemy." To most people our ideals have an independent standing, an independent moral force, that seems all the more necessary when they are under attack. To Bush and Cheney our ideals and our morals are entirely dependent on circumstances and, more specifically, on the actions and behaviors of others. If my enemy tortures, if my enemy kills, then I have to do so too not because it gets me anywhere tactically or strategically but because if I don't sink to his level I've lost an entirely psychological game of one-downmanship.

Under this scheme there are no bad acts, or no acts too bad for us to committ. There are only good and bad actors--and those have been defined before the game starts. "They" are always bad, even when they are distributing food and clothing to war victims, "We" are always good, even when we are torturing or killing our enemies. In fact, as you can see from Cheney's words--the *more* we reject our own rules and ideals the *better* we become since our greatness is defined almost entirely by our fantasy of ourselves and our fantasy of ourselves as winners.


When the US government were first setting up their oubliette in Guantanamo Bay, I noticed - this was in January 2002 - that the initial administration talk about it was all about how harsh their regime was going to be towards the prisoners, how much they were going to suffer in their cages. This of course got a very public reaction from the Red Cross and other international agencies, and the Bush administration spokespeople promptly backtracked and claimed the prisoners were going to be treated extremely well. But the impression I got was that they were saying these things to their base, whom they expected to approve, and hadn't considered the effect this announcement would have elsewhere.

1. Torture is very effective at eliciting false confessions.

2. Where did you ever get the idea that these guys have any morals?

3. In their defense, they would never eat their own children just because they taste better than regular food. They'd buy some on the black market.

even though i normally hate me some mass-pop-psychology... my pet theory is that 9/11 simply gave people an excuse to indulge aspects of their personalities that they normally would've kept under wraps. all the latent authoritarian, sadistic impulses now have a chance to jump up and work out under cover of "patriotism" and "making them pay". it's every little macho coward's dream come true: a chance to do what's normally forbidden or taboo and come out of it looking like a Jack Bauer-esque hero.

by coincidence, Tim F, today, writes this:

    Future generations can argue whether 9/11 made a subset of Americans so loopy that they lost the moral compass altogether, or the terror attacks just offered a golden chance to let those ugly impulses hang out in the open. (my emph)

I think cleek has hit on it. Humans, in general, have some pretty nasty things residing inside them. Given the right trigger, they will come out. There is a sense of "they" deserve what we are doing to them.

For those doing the actual torturing, there is a sense of ego gratification. For those approving it, there is a vicarious enjoyment of the process.

What concerns me is what is often referred to as the "ticking bomb" scenario. Many who are against torture in general say that if we know that something is about to happen, and if we have in custody someone who we know knows about it, it may be permissable to torture at that time.

If anything, this is likely to be even less productive. After all, the prisoner knows that he/she just has to resist for a specific period of time. When the time comes close, they would even probably be willing to give false information. And in the current situation, we are dealing with fanatics who really don't even care if they die or suffer because it is a form of martyrdom.

I remember reading quite a while ago where the FBI was very upset with the interrogations at Gitmo because they felt they were nonproductive and that they had better techniques which did not rely on torture.

I think everybody above is largely right, but don't forget the banal in the banality of evil here: in corporations, bad-to-mediocre managers always emphasize being seen doing something (be!the!action!man!) about an issue, rather than figuring out and solving the underlying problem (too costly). This is Bush. Whereas Cheney - let's just say I wouldn't be all that surprised if his undisclosed location was in Gitmo. And providing naughty vicarious thrills to the base: KR.

The US military has known at least since World War II that torture doesn't work. Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran wrote a report, "Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field," that shows that the most effective way of getting information from prisoners is being nice to them.

Looks like garden-variety testoterone poisoning run amuck in a declining empire to me. They need to engage in butch posturing; 9/11 gave them an excuse and a class of enemies to play it out on. And they do it because their stunted universe of power games provdes no alternative path.

What is even more depressing is that they can train the rest of us to put up with it.

I think I have to agree with Aimai here. I long ago concluded, as the result of arguing with conservatives/Republicans that they and I had inverse views of the world. I believe that we are the good guys because what we do it good. When we behave in ways that the bad out weights the good, then we have become the bad guys. (Though I do have to insert notice here that in a conflict between two actors there is no requirement that one be good, it is easily possible for both to be bad.) Many conservatives / Republicans seem to believe the inverse. They believe we, meaning conservatives / Republicans / US, are by definition the good guys. It therefore follows that what ever we do is good.

I agree with Cleek and John Miller. The assumption

that anyone who was thinking about endorsing torture would first stop and think very, very carefully about whether it is actually effective

is not correct. For some people, possibly more than we like to admit, the first question would be whether they could get away with it.

jim henley has written some good stuff on how the pro-torture right's infatuation with the ticking time bomb reveals their deep lust for certain kinds of sadism.

but he may be too kind in suggesting that the pro-torture right does *not* "have any ambition to rape their own children."

Ted Klaudt might disagree, as well as the up-standing daddies among the christian "cover"-artists.

Cleek, that's more or less my theory, too. A lot of Americans were caught off-guard and had barbaric moments, but there were some who've really gotten tired of being adults and civilized and all and were hankering for the ongoing excuse to indulge.

I agree entirely with all the previous comments, so I can add only one small point. When evaluating the merits of torture as a policy, we must also take into account the costs of that policy. Torture destroys our moral standing. It increases the recruitment rate of terrorists, it undermines our relationships with other nations, and it makes it easier for them to resist our policies. For example, the Europeans are now committed to establishing a foreign policy apparatus that is independent of the USA; they are also well on the way towards setting up an independent military force. They will never again subordinate their foreign policy to our own.

Just this morning I saw a tiny example of all this: Ms USA was booed during the competition in Mexico City. This is largely due to Mexican concerns with US immigration policy, but I believe that the American use of torture has added to the contempt with which we are held internationally. It's a tiny matter, and purely symbolic, but it is worthy of note.

I wonder if we don't miss something important when we accept the premise that the purpose of torture is the extraction of information. Torture has another, more important political purpose.

As Elaine Scarry has argued powerfully in The Body in Pain, in torture the interrogation, the search for information, is the pretext. The purpose is the destruction of organized social groups that might oppose the regime. Torture destroys social bodies by attacking the physical bodies - and minds - of their members. Survivors of torture in Pinochet's Chile, for example tell how, after hours or days of futile resistance they finally let slip a name, a meeting place - only to be told, "We already knew. We just wanted to hear you say it." What the torturers are after is not information, but betrayal.

This is why - to mix a metaphor - the ticking time bomb is really a red herring.

We've known for years that torture doesn't work.

I've been preaching it for years (longer years than the present public discussion of it as a possible "tool" in the "war on terror") because I intetrrogate people.

So the only conclusion I've been able to come to is people don't give a shit. For other reasons they are willng to support it, and do some complicated mental gymnastics to say those of us who point to silly little things like evidence are wrong.

I'm trying to work out the details of that to post elsewhere, but it's far ranging, and at the moment, unfocused.

Saying that they *know* torture doesn't work is like saying they *know* that bombing someone into the stone age is going to make them more defiant, rather than more docile.

Clearly, they don't know it. They live in their "24" fantasy world; These are all plot lines, not people, and it always turns out the way the screenwriters planned. They may not understand what motivates people at deeper levels, but they do know that if you pull somebody's nails out it's very painful and in their little world of power plays and domination that's all they care about.

"But there's no excuse for letting your soul slip through your fingers because you're too busy striking a stern and heroic attitude to notice."


From the article:

A. B. Krongard, who was the executive director of the C.I.A., the No. 3 post at the agency, from 2001 to 2004, agreed with that assessment but acknowledged that the agency had to create an interrogation program from scratch in 2002.

He said officers quickly consulted counterparts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other countries to compile a “catalog” of techniques said to be effective against Arab and Muslim prisoners.

DOJ then approved some of these techniques.

Notice the overlap between Cheney's speech at West Point and the Republican meme of criminal-coddling Democrats.

I think the latter laid a lot of the groundwork for the post-9/11 mentality. Cheney's notorious "dark side" statement shows that, in his opinion, we had unnecessarily weakened ourselves with restraints imposed by "delicate sensibilities."

The rhetoric of effeminacy is obvious, of course, and a staple of the tough-on-criminals rhetoric I've mentioned.

What seems to be at work here is a variety of Nietzsche's "slave morality" -- not a repudiation of the master's abuses, but a sneaking admiration for them, and a desire to perpetrate them oneself, in order to magnify oneself.

Calling this "sadism," IMHO, mixes up too many disparate impulses. It springs from a sense of inferiority or weakness.

I tend to agree with this post at TAPPED, that advocating torture, regardless of its effectiveness, has the extra merit in some persons' eyes of being a statement of will -- that we so strongly want to win that we don't care what the cost is. And since some think that the critical element in our march to victory is will, showing our will in such a manner increases our chances to win.

Unfortunately, to me, that attitude is the mark of a madman, not of a hero.

But torture does work!

It works very, very well for the supression of internal political dissent. And you wonder why the headcase base supports it? Name a single-party state that hasn't used torture on its opponents.

NonyNony, in comments at LGM (same post as at Tappped), captures much better than I did one aspect of the torture issue:

But a lot of [pro-torture folk] just know that "liberals" don't like torture. After all, who comes out against torture -- European governments (known to all be "liberal") and American liberals. And with a certain mentality, if a "liberal" doesn't like it, that means that to be a "true conservative" you have to like it just to spite the liberals.

if a "liberal" doesn't like it, that means that to be a "true conservative" you have to like it

it sounds so ridiculous. and yet, it's so true.

"We've known for years that torture doesn't work..."

Make that centuries, since the European witch-craze was largely driven by the use of torture (one reason it was barely present in England was that torture there was not part of the usual judicial procedure of inquiry). And there were those at the time who realized this--sometimes sooner, sometimes later (when people they knew to be respectable were implicated by confessions under torture). Unfortunately there are parallels here, about it being OK to use torture against Really Scary Enemies.

That said, I still don't know the attraction this had for Bush/Cheny/Yoo--except that here are guys who never faced a danger in their lives, wanting to be tough--phony tough.

There was an interesting cover article in The Atlantic a month or so ago about the interrogations that led to the location and killing of Zarqawi in Iraq (behind the sub wall, so no link). In essence, it was just good-cop, bad-cop, one interrogator acting harsh and authoritarian (but with no abuse at all, although playing off muslim cultural prejudices - the bad cop was a woman) and the other coming in at off-hours, claiming to understand that the prisoner was actually a very important guy, flattering him, claiming that the highest levels of US intelligence were hanging on his every word, and that he could get the prisoner out from under the thumb of the harsh female interrogator once he got some useful intel. It worked, the guy spilled to the good cop, Zarqawi got a missle in his ear, and the used-up source was packed off to a military prison. There you go. No waterboarding, no stress positions, just crafty manipulation. Further, the information was credible because it was not offered in shrieking desperation, but as an bona fide - i.e. the prisoner knew that unless it panned out, he'd get nothing.

These techniques are so old as to be cop-movie cliches, but they still work, apparently. But, they take time, which brings us to the ticking time bomb scenario. As for that, as former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak and former CINC USCENTCOM Joseph Hoar recently wrote in the WaPo:

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture -- only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works -- the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Our soldiers in Iraq confront real "ticking time bomb" situations every day, in the form of improvised explosive devices, and any degree of "flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone -- the rare exception fast becoming the rule.

As for the torture supporters out there, well, f**k 'em. All these steely-eyed, flagwaving rationalists running around in little circles waving their hands and calling everyone with a dry crotch "unserious." What a joke.

I think Hilzoy's point about the impractical nature of torture is both valid and important. However, I keep on coming back to the morally obscene nature of it. Its one of those things that simply should not be debated.

Torture is morally obscence.

Yes, that's right. I just baldly stated it without explaing or justifying my position. I don't allow for any nuance, I don't engage with any arguments. The reason why I don't is that in our society it should be self-evident why you shouldn't and the very act of debating degrades our public discourse. This becomes apparent when you consider rape or murder. These are also morally heinous acts that are strictly prohibited by law. If anyone were to sit down with you with the intent to convince you that raping and murdering some people is a good idea as a matter of public polic you would realize, unless you are a pscyhopath, that the very terms of the debate are corrupt.

The requisite moral reasoning as to why that is is neither here nor there. It certainly has a place in a philosophy class room but absolutely none when we are talking about how our government and people should behave in the real world.

I wrote this for an Army school I attended a while back. It was not controversial.

I would want to be able to torture the enemy if I thought it would save my troops, wouldn’t you? If he knows where the improvised bombs are, shouldn’t I extract that information by any means necessary? Certainly if there was a nuclear bomb and you had the person who knew where it was, it should be legal to extract information by any means necessary.

Not really. There may be tactical justification for torture in some cases, but it is almost never justifiable strategically. The US loses much more than a few points in world opinion polls. Some of the justification used is that it is necessary for key information, humane treatment won't work with zealots, and that the enemy does not respect the conventions, so we don't have to either. I don't believe these hold up against US strategic interests.

I think the main flaw with an eye for an eye attitude (that they don't comply with the conventions, so why should we) is the respective goals of the 2 forces in Iraq. Our mission is to stabilize and their mission is to destabilize. Torture and random killings is a great way to destabilize. It is not a great way to get a population to trust you to do the right thing, particularly when you are a foreign force. Humane, civilized treatment during the occupation in Japan was able to overcome even though there was a core group who were willing to be suicide attackers (kamikazes), and the Japanese Army was as ruthless as any in the last century. Certainly there was a higher percentage of Japanese who had lost a member of the family during WWII than is true in Iraq. Showing a humane face during occupation in my mind helped prevent long term insurgency within Japan, and allowed democracy to come to fruition. Japan certainly had the capacity to make that occupation miserable, but American forces did their best to not give them a reason to. The vast majority of Iraqis (according to polls) want to vote and have a government of their choosing. Keeping this majority on the side of democracy is the center of gravity for our mission, and losing it is losing the war.

Another argument is that humane treatment won't work to influence zealots. However, all accounts indicate that the people who are beheading and suicide bombing are a small group numbering in the thousands. The entire insurgency numbers around 200,000. It is the vast majority of the enemy that we would seek to influence, not the core group of zealots.

For our military, rigidly applying the Geneva Conventions is a combat multiplier and saves lives. It aids in all future fights with the enemy. When the enemy is reasonably sure that he will be treated well when captured, he is much more likely to surrender rather than fight to the death. American casualties always mount during mopping up of enemy combatants.

Reciprocity with the Geneva Conventions is not a real issue. We don't want reciprocity for our combat effectiveness (though we would certainly appreciate it for captured soldiers). American soldiers know that they will be burned at the stake, beheaded, or dragged through the street if captured. Because of this, American soldiers continue to fight against incredible odds (think Blackhawk Down). If there was a reasonable expectation of three hots and a cot, and a later prisoner exchange, American soldiers in impossible positions probably would be willing to surrender. Instead they almost invariably fight to the death rather than surrender. This was not always true when fighting civilized enemies. The treatment of American soldiers at the hands of various enemy forces has certainly cost America's enemies much more in lives in the long run than it has cost the US.

Now, the propaganda machines of the enemy can show what happens to those who surrender to Americans, just as our soldiers know what will happen to them if they surrender. Regardless of how often or how painful the treatment was, we know that some people were beaten and killed, and the enemy knows it as well. Many will likely to choose to fight and die rather than be stacked naked with electrodes attached, or beaten to death in prison.

The canard about getting information that will save lives fails to account for the reality that losing the combat multiplier of the Geneva Conventions costs more lives than whatever information gained is likely to save. Rooting out individuals from the rubble who might have otherwise surrendered but now prefer to die rather than be captured is the most intensive and dangerous fight we can face, and the most likely to continue to costs American lives. Think of Japanese soldiers in caves on Pacific Islands and the terrible cost in lives that we incurred. This is not going to be our last war, so even if it was true that in this circumstance torture and inhumane treatment would be more successful in ending the war or gaining key information, it does not account for the loss of lives in future wars due to the enemy not being willing to surrender for fear of expected treatment in American custody.

And even in the case of the nuclear bomb, it should be illegal to torture a terrorist to get the information. However, the fact that it is illegal does not mean that in that instance, I would not do it. I would simply be willing to accept the potential legal punishment that might accompany my actions. We ask soldiers and police to risk their very lives to serve the nation in much lesser circumstances, certainly we should be able to expect our leaders to risk prison in order to prevent a nuclear bomb. Opening the door legally for this extreme case is unnecessary for it to occur if it was needed, but once the legal door is open, our other strategic interests will be harmed.

During the first Gulf War and in the early stages of this war, we saw that the Iraqi Army would surrender, sometimes en masse. Many of these same people are the ones we are fighting now. I believe that the potential of torture in American hands has changed this dynamic, and we will lose a lot of soldiers because of it.

Torturing prisoners is not only illegal and immoral: it should always be illegal and almost never done, because it harms US strategic interests far beyond public opinion polls.

I wrote this for an Army school I attended a while back. It was not controversial.

And yet, the most senior officer to be prosecuted for torturing a PoW to death, got a slap on the wrist. And he was only an NCO. No commissioned officer been successfully prosecuted for the crime of torturing prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere. I do not believe that this has even been acknowledged by the Pentagon as a problem.

Glad to to see Rebecca Gordon mention The Body in Pain, arguably one of the best essays as to why torture is actually done.

jrudkis: bravo.

Even the Spanish Inquisition had its rational side. The witch craze never took hold in Spain because the Inquisitors fact-checked the claims of the alleged witches (e.g. by sending observers to the convention places). When they repeatedly found nothing even when the "witches" claimed to have been there at the time the cases were dropped (and the women punished for lying under torture instead). From then on there was a zero tolerance policy for rumors about witchcraft.
If of course the truth is secondary and only a confession is needed to justify the treatment, such behaviour could be considered counterproductive (and the lack of a confession under torture can be construed as guilt too because only hardened criminals would be able to withstand).

and the women punished for lying under torture instead

Coming to a military tribunal near you!

Very nice, jrudkis. May it not fall on deaf ears.

You know, in Fredrick Marrayat's novel "Peter Simple", the protagonist is wrecked in a storm on an island occupied by the French, who are the enemy. The character, who is a midshippman in charge of a boat crew, does not even consider the possibility of starting guerilla warfare against the French units. The main problem arising in the situation is to find a French officer on the hurricane-wrecked island so that our hero can surrender himself and his men. The protagonist is not an anti-hero, but considered an examplary sailor. It just happens to be that there is no rational chance of getting any results from resistance to the enemy or any chance of escaping back to the British squadron the whereabouts of which are completely unknown.

The scene I described takes place in 1810's. Since then, a lot has changed.

cleek: You're right about impulses. I'd bet that half of the males in red-blooded America vote based on their identification with "who is tougher". Think Goldberg. Do you really think Goldberg actually cares about policy? Or does he just care about America being tough and, by extension, himself feeling tough?

These people will always be with us. They'll never go away, and they're a menace. Some sizable chunk of people will have authoritarian political impulses: impulses based on domination and team identification. And they'll keep baiting the rest of us with not being "tough" enough.

The question is: how does a state continue to operate humanely given that (a) the authoritarian menace is always around and (b) in times of threat, its idiotic message becomes more compelling to decent-minded people?

The other challenge is how a decent political party can coopt some of these impulses in more healthy ways, because darnit it makes it toughto win an election when you alienate the macho vote.

If you don't believe me, ask yourself what other possible impulses could inspire the Ledeen Doctrine and (b) why such goons still get published by the LA Times?

Ledeen? A fine man, and I'll see no ill spoken of him!

Uh. The US government has known since the aftermath of the Korean war in the 1950's that torture doesn't produce good intelligence. This conclusion was strongly vetted by the debriefings of Vietnam POWs in early 1973 at the end of th Vietnam conflict.

I personally attended "Survival, Resistance, Escape and Evasion" school as part of Navy aviation training in 1983. The torturers assigned to us were, themselves, former Vietnam POWs. It was an unforgettable week.

Torture doesn't work! Eventually the subject will crack and tell you what he thinks you want to hear. That's important bevcause that isn't necessarily the truth. And this is VERY PRECISELY what happened with the information Tenet got and snowed Colin Powell with for Powell's briefing of the United Nations early in 2003 as we prepared for Iraq. Tenet's information was based on coercion and torture; the results were what the subject correctly guessed we wanted to hear -- and -- it wasn't true.

One more thing against torture. It's despicable. There's a religious group campaigning and lobbying against it. It has an insidious effect on the country that does it. The Army can't recruit enough soldiers right now, for the first time in three and a half decades of volunteer military service. They haven't been able to meet their quota since, uh, right after the hideous Abu Ghriab photos got out... could there be a connection there?!

"He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."
...Thomas Paine

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