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November 06, 2005

The Non-Problems With Not Torturing

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Kevin Drum and Mark Kleiman point out that oft-cited pieces of false information about Iraq training al-Qaeda operatives to use WMD were extracted under torture. Examples like this are important for the pragmatic case against torture. People being tortured don't try to say true things; they say whatever they think will make their suffering stop. Using torture will bring us lots of false information, and relying heavily on it may lead our foreign policy into catastrophic errors.

Defenders of torture often bring up movie-perfect ticking-time-bomb scenarios where the information received under torture can be tested quickly and there is no great threat of damage from false information. (It takes some effort to even come up with a good case where torture would be useful. If you were torturing a terrorist for information about where a bomb was in New York City, the terrorist could falsely claim that the bomb was in some obscure and hard-to-search location. By the time the location was thoroughly searched, the bomb might well go off, and the terrorist would get both the end of the torture and the success of his plan.) Situations like this, however, are very different from the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo or any of our foreign prisons, where false information is costly and hard to weed out. It's here where the arguments against torture as a policy are most relevant.

It's not clear to me that a policy opposing torture would actually prevent torture from being applied in the extreme cases that the torture supporters like to bring up. I'm guessing that antiterrorism personnel in extreme situations where torture is clearly the only way to prevent a city from being annihilated will resort to torture whether or not it's permitted. I'd also guess that politicians would be forthcoming with pardons for anyone whose acts of torture were successful in saving thousands of lives. So using a no-torture policy in the usual cases won't weaken us in the unusual and spectacular cases.

November 6, 2005 in Terrorism | Permalink

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Comments

Torture will never produce good information. It is never useful. It will never save lives, never stop a bomb, never save a city. While I think that this was really your point, we need to be clear that we never support torture, not in any case.

Torture is what happens when malleable men and women are manipulated by reprobates who get off on cruelty. The current "policies" on torture have more to do with Cheney's libido than getting information.

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 6, 2005 10:37:39 PM

I oppose torture and think we ought to adopt a strict policy banning its use.

That said: I am pretty sure that torture can be used as an effective way to extract reliable information from a subject.

First of all, if you can tell when the subject is lying (e.g. by using some kind of truth-detector), then the procedure would be simple enough: You ask the subject where the bomb is (or whatever it is you want to know). If he lies, you zap him. You keep zapping him every time he lies or refuses to answer. If you repeat this enough times, I guess he'll tell you the truth in order to avoid being zapped.

Secondly, even if you can't tell when the subject is lying, all you really need to do is convince the subject that you CAN tell when he is lying. You can accomplish this by asking a bunch of questions whose answers you know, and by zapping him whenever he gives the wrong ones. As long as your subject doesn't know you already know the answers, he'll assume that you can tell when he's lying. Then you ask him the question you're really interested in, and he'll give you the correct answer to avoid being zapped.

These ideas come off the top of my head and/or are remembered from movies. I am pretty confident that smart people who have thought about this problem at greater length will have come up with even better strategies.

Again, none of this means that torture is OK. I don't think it is. I just don't think we can explain why torture isn't OK by saying that torture isn't an effective interrogation method.

Posted by: david | Nov 7, 2005 3:28:42 AM

Paris burns for a *DOZEN days at the had of the Muslim immigrants and the lack of coverage in the liberal blogosphere and particularly on this board is deafening.
Here Ezra has a huge political issue, but is apparently unwilling to report it. Is there an unwritten rule not to criticize Muslims or the French?
Just imagine the chatter here if these were Christians!! C'mon, Ezra, grow some 'nads.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 7, 2005 8:14:24 AM

David,
The problem with a "truth-detector" is that they don't actually detect truth. They detect the stress that occurs when you lie. Being "zapped" would stress the subject so much that his lies would detect as normal, and thus truthful.

Torture does not work, if you're after the truth. It only works if your sole purpose is to cause needless pain.

Posted by: William Bollinger | Nov 7, 2005 8:54:11 AM

Excellent stuff. Neil, you are profoundly right. (I think David has done an astute piece of examination, but politically, I think Neil is right.) And what's more, your discussion is entirely pertinent in contemporary Germany (or "Old Europe") as well. We may not be as far as having our own Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib, but Americans are unduly flattering us if they think these dim-witted people who set out to form our new government in the "grand coalition" of Ms. Merkel could be suspected to make any headway in protecting humane society against Bush's America. Europe's sole chance of escaping neo-conservative reversion back even beyond the darkest ages of history is Edwards (or Gore) '08, combined with an all-out revulsion in the political landscape of America? Lord, have mercy on us, who live among nations increasingly fond again of calling themselves "Christian"!

Fred Jones, I'm not so sure that the Paris riots are only caused by the poor integration (or non-integration) of muslims. I thing they have a lot to do with neo-liberal Europe writing off its underclasses. From several articles in "Le Monde diplomatique" I even caught the information that France is much advanced on its way of emulating American imprisonment philosophy of "making prisoners smell like prisoners once more". Privatisation of jail administrations, exploiting of the working power of detainees, letting them socially rot and adopt denunciatory and cynical habits. You shouldn't be too sure that this atmosphere of being outcast by society, is not felt all around the banlieus and cannot be seeking a vent in what's happening right now.

Posted by: Martin Bauer | Nov 7, 2005 10:08:10 AM

Fred Jones, I'm not so sure that the Paris riots are only caused by the poor integration (or non-integration) of muslims.

I didn't make any assertions as to why. I just stated the fact that it was Muslims (and it is) and that it happened in France (which it did).
The rest should be up for discussion. However, the liberals would rather not address this world event, except for Martin Bauer and so far, all he has done is apologize for the poor Muslims.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 7, 2005 10:21:24 AM

“The rest should be up for discussion.”
I agree with you; but I think they will finally take notice. When they do, let me advise them to not pay any sentimental tributes to the quaint notion of Europe or France being essentially nicer to the their poors than America. The European “model of social economy” is folkore among the people (thankfully), but it is a mere mirage among our élites.
“However, the liberals [...], except for Martin Bauer ...
I do, quite deliberately, not understand myself as a “liberal”, but as a socially minded Christian progressive. Though, I admit, that touches an incongruity in terminology between Europe and America.
“... all he has done is apologize for the poor Muslims.”
Let me suggest, I did apologize the poor, who happen to be, to a considerable degree, Muslims. However, my chief interest is not to apologize, but to SHAKE the somnambulating LIBERTARIANS, who are at large in Europe just as in America thoroughly destroying our societies without even recognizing it.

Posted by: Martin Bauer | Nov 7, 2005 10:39:16 AM

This Paris talk is off topic. Don't address it here. If you have a problem with Ezra's "reporting" on the subject (which is B.S. because he doesn't report here, he only comments here) email him directly and ask him to address it.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 7, 2005 11:24:04 AM

This Paris talk is off topic. Don't address it here. If you have a problem with Ezra's "reporting" on the subject (which is B.S. because he doesn't report here, he only comments here) email him directly and ask him to address it.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 7, 2005 11:24:45 AM

This Paris talk is off topic. Don't address it here. If you have a problem with Ezra's "reporting" on the subject (which is B.S. because he doesn't report here, he only comments here) email him directly and ask him to address it.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 7, 2005 11:25:25 AM

That totally was not my fauly. I only hit "post" once.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 7, 2005 11:28:01 AM

I think it is more important to oppose torture on moral terms than practical. While there are many practical problems with torture they pale in comparison to moral problems.

My guess is people who actually know something will reveal it under torture. The practical problem is those that don't know anything will make something up in order to stop the torture, causing many false positives. But intelligence operatives that understand that can still use the information. For example, in the "ticking bomb" scenario, if you have five people that might know about the bomb, but only actually knows the location, torturing all five would lead to five locations to look for the bomb. But one of those is likely to be correct and five places to look is much less than infinite possibilities

But torture is wrong, period. Some tools simply aren't available to the good guys.

Posted by: Mark | Nov 7, 2005 11:45:37 AM

I think it is more important to oppose torture on moral terms than practical. While there are many practical problems with torture they pale in comparison to moral problems.

My guess is people who actually know something will reveal it under torture. The practical problem is those that don't know anything will make something up in order to stop the torture, causing many false positives. But intelligence operatives that understand that can still use the information. For example, in the "ticking bomb" scenario, if you have five people that might know about the bomb, but only actually knows the location, torturing all five would lead to five locations to look for the bomb. But one of those is likely to be correct and five places to look is much less than infinite possibilities

But torture is wrong, period. Some tools simply aren't available to the good guys.

Posted by: Mark | Nov 7, 2005 11:46:55 AM

Some tools simply aren't available to the good guys.

This attitude is a symptom of a much larger prblem and that is that "war" is not really war anymore where victory is to be garnered at all costs.
In WAR, all tools are available, there are no 'good guys' and victory is all we seek.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 7, 2005 12:42:53 PM

I generally agree with this conclusion of yours (last sentence), Mark. I only keep wondering where "torture" exactly starts. Let me explain:

Some two years ago (according to my time feeling) we had a very relevant case in Germany. Former Frankfurt police superintendent Wolfgang Daschner got hold of Magnus Gäfgen, a young man who was convicted (by police investigation) of having abducted juvenile banker's son Jakob von Metzler and threatened him with "making him feel a pain he had never experienced before" in order to make him betray the place where he had hidden the boy. Gäfgen yielded without actual torture, but Jakob was found to have been dead already prior to the intimidation. Daschner got a mild sentence and found kindred spirits among his superiors in the police administration as well.

I confess, I have some difficulty in making up my mind amidst the considerable flurry which was rose around this case in Germany. I see a fat risk that such "kindred spirits" may turn to full-fledged corruption in a wink. Moreover, Daschner was said to have consulted a "medical specialist" to oversee the procedure. So he did implicate others and evince some criminal energy. That are aggravating circumstances, in my opinion.

On the other hand: Roughly one half of Germany joined in a moral outcry. But they never pleaded that the knowledge of Gäfgen (as to the location of the hide-out) may have been questionable, in the actual case. Instead they took a rigorous stance, subsuming "psychical pain" and even the menace therewith under torture. Much as I was aghast with this new ilk of roughshod conservatives (who were virtually non-existent in Germany before, say, ten years ago) discussing at great length - and relish - the supposed merits of codifying the situations where torture should be legalized, I also cannot quite follow the liberal argument. For I think that police officials are human beings too, after all. And they should be welcomed for investing their personal feelings and commitment into their work, shouldn't they. But if you grant that, you immediately arrive at acknowledging a limit to their nervous durability as well. Thus, I think the judges generally did right in assuming some kind of "extra-legal state of defence" and weighing guilt and merit contingent to that case.

Posted by: Martin Bauer | Nov 7, 2005 1:24:53 PM

In WAR, all tools are available, there are no 'good guys' and victory is all we seek.

Which is exactly why its become the norm to attach the term "War" to everything, so that we can cast aside any moral conflict. Eg. see War on Drugs, War on the Judiciary, even War on Terrorism.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 7, 2005 4:43:00 PM

Here's the thing. If torture is so ineffective and generates so many false positives, then why would the Govt. want to keep doing it?

I'll give you a hint: that word does not mean what you think it means.

Modern-day interrogators generally do not use pain. They use psychological techniques designed to break down your mental defenses. The Mossad has raised this to a high art.

Fake menstrual blood, anyone?

Posted by: Mastiff | Nov 8, 2005 12:58:58 AM

I think the crucial point is to finally regain our wariness against too large and too autonomous centers of power, even were it our own, and were it times of war.

Re-install checks and balances, stop privatizing war, recapitulate what was done in the Church- and Pike-Commission and redefine the word "patriotism" to let it be compatible with intelligent personality once more.

And most important of all, stop this fake Bush rhetoric of the perpetual war (regurgitated by Fred Jones here). America is invincible among the world powers. But if she continues to entrench herself on what seems to me to be a modern counterpart of that notion ruling among German conservatives in World War I (esp. after the victory over Russia), which said "Viel Feind, viel Ehr!" ('Much of enemies, much of fame') this proud nation will fail too. Believe me.

Posted by: Martin Bauer | Nov 8, 2005 1:50:30 AM

Which is exactly why its become the norm to attach the term "War" to everything, so that we can cast aside any moral conflict. Eg. see War on Drugs, War on the Judiciary, even War on Terrorism.

Oh, I agree wholeheartedly.

That being said, soldiers with rifles shooting and being shot at, bombings, air strikes, casualties etc., is not a fake war as Martin would have you believe. How we got to war is certainly up for debate, but once we are there, seek victory at all costs. There is nothing more pathetic than those who claim to be patriotic while they are throwing every wrench they can against the effort to win.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 8, 2005 10:46:38 AM

Fred, a fake war rhetoric, I said. That’s a fat difference. They were in a very real war too, in 1917, and Hindenburg, Ludendorff et al. coaxed a martial, blustering, but profoundly incompetent and immature German emperor, Wilhelm II., into priding himself of vanquished Russia and seeking “victory at all costs”. As we all know, an entire century didn’t completely recover from the turmoils ensuing.

Posted by: Martin Bauer | Nov 8, 2005 11:20:23 AM

They were in a very real war too, in 1917, and Hindenburg, Ludendorff et al. coaxed a martial, blustering, but profoundly incompetent and immature German emperor, Wilhelm II., into priding himself of vanquished Russia and seeking “victory at all costs”. As we all know, an entire century didn’t completely recover from the turmoils ensuing.

What you are implying is that 'victory at all costs' was the single issue that cost them the war and if we held this same belief, the same would happen to us. Please say you have better reasoning powers than that.

While you are at it, please tell us why you do not wish the US to win. What motivates you?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 8, 2005 12:01:30 PM

They were in a very real war too, in 1917, and Hindenburg, Ludendorff et al. coaxed a martial, blustering, but profoundly incompetent and immature German emperor, Wilhelm II., into priding himself of vanquished Russia and seeking “victory at all costs”. As we all know, an entire century didn’t completely recover from the turmoils ensuing.

What you are implying is that 'victory at all costs' was the single issue that cost them the war and if we held this same belief, the same would happen to us. Please say you have better reasoning powers than that.

While you are at it, please tell us why you do not wish the US to win. What motivates you?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 8, 2005 12:04:18 PM

“What motivates you?”
I will tell you exactly: to come back to the topic, – and in order to be even more precise: I want us all to put an effective curb on torture, which has already (in the fourth year of Bush’s perpetual war) very much altered the ways of that country which once was the protagonist of free and HUMANE society.
“Please say you have better reasoning powers than that.”
I have. But I will not waste them here. For what counts here is less to do smart reasoning than to be WILLING to learn from history and take on some wisdom. I guess, every nation will have to get its own bloody nose. And the rest of the world will have to stand by the pageant and see if they can survive the collateral damage.

Posted by: Martin Bauer | Nov 8, 2005 1:05:34 PM

“What motivates you?”
I will tell you exactly: to come back to the topic, – and in order to be even more precise: I want us all to put an effective curb on torture, which has already (in the fourth year of Bush’s perpetual war) very much altered the ways of that country which once was the protagonist of free and HUMANE society.
“Please say you have better reasoning powers than that.”
I have. But I will not waste them here. For what counts here is less to do smart reasoning than to be WILLING to learn from history and take on some wisdom. I guess, every nation will have to get its own bloody nose. And the rest of the world will have to stand by the pageant and see if they can survive the collateral damage.

Posted by: Martin Bauer | Nov 8, 2005 1:07:47 PM

“What motivates you?”
I will tell you exactly: to come back to the topic, – and in order to be even more precise: I want us all to put an effective curb on torture, which has already (in the fourth year of Bush’s perpetual war) very much altered the ways of that country which once was the protagonist of free and HUMANE society.
“Please say you have better reasoning powers than that.”
I have. But I will not waste them here. For what counts here is less to do smart reasoning than to be WILLING to learn from history and take on some wisdom. I guess, every nation will have to get its own bloody nose. And the rest of the world will have to stand by the pageant and see if they can survive the collateral damage.

Posted by: Martin Bauer | Nov 8, 2005 1:10:52 PM

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