Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Protestation on the Nature and Uses of Torture

A few days ago, President Bush admitted the existence of secret CIA-run prisons. "Secret" is, of course, more a description of their ideal rather than actual status, knowledge of their operation having been fairly common for some time now. Accompanying this admission was a stout defense of the institutions and the "tough" interrogation tactics used by CIA personnel. These revelations were met with pretty much the sort of responses you would expect, acceptance or rejection according to one's political proclivities. It should come as no surprise that I have an opinion on the matter too, but I hesitate to discuss the matter.

Politics has always represented something of a problem for me, at least on the internet. Every time I feel like discussing some current event, I must overcome this peculiar falling sensation. You see, political discussions online seem to me nothing other than a vast abyss, a deep void of unimaginable depth. Like a black hole, once you've been caught, there's no escape. I could see myself become consumed with argument and counter-argument, although the reality is that such substantive communications are likely the minority in a field that almost assuredly reduces down to strawmen and insults. Thus it is with great reluctance that I occasionally make political posts.

Having temporarily overcome my hesitation, I choose to take this opportunity to denounce the secret prison program. I do so for substantive, moral, and legal reasons, though ever cognizant of the possible dividends to be gained through such constructions.


Torture is something of a buzz word right now. The left wields it like a club, swinging away from a moral high ground reduced to a mole hill through cynical political opportunism. The right's position is far hazier. Although they always begin with a disclaimer denouncing torture, conservatives tend to defend it in principle with a variety of arguments, ranging from accusations that liberals would "coddle" terrorists to apocalyptic prognostications resulting from it's rejection. I highly doubt that few Republicans would be willing to criticize the administration even were it revealed that there was wide-spread and officially sanctioned acts of depraved brutality.

This suspicion stems from the fact that all of the conservative rhetoric on "tough interrogation tactics" applies equally to torture (and indeed it is not quite clear that the aforementioned inquisitorial activities are not torture). Thus, in order to reasonably reject the prison system, one must reject torture. But is that really such a good idea? I think so, and I shall endeavor to illustrate why it is the only rational, moral, and strategically sound decision.

Why We Torture

November 23rd seemed like any other day. Difficulties both foreign and domestic catapult the Democrats to Election Day successes, wrestling control of both Congressional Houses from the Republicans. Liberal celebrations are cut short, however, by the news of a nuclear blast in the port city of Los Angeles. Hundreds of thousands confirmed dead, millions injured, and California's largest city reduced to radioactive rubble.

This is the doomsday scenario. It features prominently in every single conservative defenestration of torture and abuse, and resides deep within the heart of every American too (that's what makes it such a good political tool). If we knew of such a plot, and we knew we had someone in custody who could reveal its inner workings, wouldn't we be justified in forcing the revelation through torture?

Realistically speaking, there can be only one answer. Of course, if you knew, and the decision was one person against thousands or millions, the only choice lies in the preservation of the group. As Vulcan logic long ago illustrated, "the needs of the many outweighed he needs of the few, or the one." By such arithmetic, there really is no other conclusion. And I use arithmetic purposefully, for it would then be a simple matter of mathematics; as in math, there would be only one solution to the equation. Given this assertion, how can I maintain hostility to torture?

To begin with, we will never actually know. We may suspect with degrees of confidence, but utter certainty will always evade us. This is true in everything that we do; all human events are subject to unforeseen vicissitudes. We have a word for that. It's called risk. When we accept torture, we will do so not with the comforting absolution of necessity, but the far more dubious justification of the possible. Of course, one could imagine probabilities so probable as to be virtually inevitable, and one would also have to allow that more latitudes are appropriate where there is more risk. And therein lies the trap.

Suppose instead of certainty, we had but a one-percent or even perhaps only a fraction of a percent of uncovering a nuclear plot. It would not be acceptable to torture someone for shoplifting revelations under such conditions, but nuclear devastation is another matter. So we apply the most abusive coercions with the least justification, or maybe even none at all, absolved by the magnitude of the threat.

It should shortly become obvious that this line of reasoning eventually vindicates any efforts, no matter how cruel or depraved, so long as the expected evil is sufficiently menacing. It would not take long before torture sustained the use of torture, and all the ills we feared from others we visit upon ourselves.

Frail Constitution

Loathed though we may be to admit it, there is a certain degree of comfort in the belief that torture would be limited to a distant and hostile people, burdened by primitive cultures and characterized by a barbaric religion. Please note that neither of those two things are true, but in the minds of many (but thankfully, not most) Americans, abuses committed on Arabs, especially aggressive Arabs, are no great crimes. Unfortunate, regrettable to be sure, as we are not a cruel people, but if necessary then so be it.

However, not only is this position morally bankrupt even were it accurate, but the arbitrary dividing line between foreign and domestic would quickly dissolve. Only two categories would remain after the inauguration of atrocity: Convicted and suspected.

Democracy is a frail thing. Despite our modern sentiments, a quick review of history reveals that security and not liberty has ever been the great concern of the masses. People purchase security through expediency, and abstract niceties like Due Process are quickly discarded in favor of more comforting paradigms. Already the Constitution withers before the oppressive sun of secret warrants, military tribunals, and illegal detention.

American citizens have been held for long periods, deprived of rights, refused the presence of counsel, and imprisoned without recourse to the judicial process. Executive fiat has become a law onto itself, buttressed in equal part by a compliant Congress and an effective trade in the currency of public apprehension. For now these travesties are the exception of an otherwise laudable rule. But how long would the Bill of Rights, for all their majesty nothing more than ink and paper, stand against the claims of necessity?

The acceptance of torture is nothing other than the acclamation of tyranny. The end may come by small steps or great bounds, but our democratic heritage will not survive the enthronement of atrocity.

Poor Dividends and Unfortunate Externalities

Finally, as if the self-expanding and tyrannical implications of torture were not bad enough, we are also faced with the fact that it is an implement of dubious strategic value.

Torture, by its very nature, produces extreme stresses on a person. The target may hold out for a time, subject to his nature and conditioning, but eventually everyone breaks. The thing is, "breaking" someone does not always produce the best results. In their desperate attempt to avoid further pain, a tortured subject will provide both what he knows and what he thinks his interrogator wishes to hear.

Both true and lie, having proceeded from the same coercion, wear the same shroud of reliability. That is, either high for you believe that a broken man would not lie, or else low, as you suspect that he may simply be squealing to save himself. In neither case is one piece of "intelligence" more worthy than the other, unless you have at hand other sources. If you have such alternatives, then the reliability increases somewhat (subject, of course, to their own confidence), but still remain suspect. And in their absence, what you have may be no more valuable than the musings of a high school cheerleading squad.

As if the questionable reliability of torture were not enough, such indulgences do not sit well with a substantial portion of Americans and an even greater percentage of foreigners. Every abusive revelation makes it that much harder to deal fairly with those Arabic countries who wish for a more peaceful way. Each outrage fans the flames of global terrorism, likely producing far more dangers than you ever prevented in the first place. The acceptance of human degradation here also makes it harder for us to impose moral authority on bankrupt and cruel regimes abroad.

However, disdain for Americans will not be limited merely to our enemies. Our allies too have profound misgivings of our activities, and our methods. Some may say we don't need anyone else, and that might or might not be true. However, certainly it would be easier to protect ourselves with the cooperation of others. Safety, that great enabler which first led us to the atrocious expedient, is not furthered by the alienation of allies.

Finally, many Americans oppose torture. They are just as patriotic as their more aggressive countrymen, and perhaps more so, as they stand for the proposition that a society is to be judged not only in how it treats its own, but in how it treats others. We are heirs to a great democratic tradition of individual liberty, restricted governance, and guaranteed protections. Acquiescence to this malevolent proposition tarnishes our legacy forever, leaving us with less to protect and less to pass on.


JanieBelle said...

Seems to us (all three of us in this one brain), that it boils down to this: We're supposed to be the guys in the white hats.

Your quotes in the sidebar sum it up pretty well for us.

kathz said...

Good post. From a British perspective, lots of us are alarmed at British complicity in torture, for instance through the process called "extraordinary rendition". We always assumed our government was against torture - but it seems we're not.



Seb said...

Your post sums it up in a very nice way. Using torture doesn't necessarily provide us with good info and it makes us lose moral high ground(which I thought was a huge part of this war on terrorism, aren't we supposed to be more civilized and rational than so called 'fanatics'?).

Jackson said...

Don't you watch 24? Everybody knows sometimes you just gotta rip a lamp out of the wall and attach the frayed wires to someone's nipples to get them to talk.

Sheri said...

Most excellent and well thought out post. I prefer to utilize torture in the bedroom rather than for reasons of national security

Prodigy-Maestro said...

I think deep down, we all know that torture will never ever be "a thing of a the past". I'm not saying that I do or don't support torture, but honestly, is this conflict we are currently engaged in one we can win without some degree of torture?