Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

The Weak Case for Torture

I have a confession to make: I watch a fair amount of Fox News, frequent conservative blogs, etc. Most days this isn’t a problem as the slanted noise machine talking points mislabeled as news one gets from these sources are in line with my own Radical Individualist Calvinist Capitalist Stooge beliefs. Occasionally, however, the experience can be a painful one, and the last couple of days, with all the renewed attention on the use of waterboarding and other forms of tor- er, “enhanced interrogation” have been some of the most painful in recent memory.

The latest meme running through these sites is that while it may be honorable to be opposed to torture on principle, we ought to be reasonable and just admit that torture works. Here, for example, is Jonah Goldberg:

I have no objection to the moral argument against torture — if you honestly believe something amounts to torture. But the “it doesn’t work” line remains a cop out, no matter how confidently you bluster otherwise.

Continue reading

April 23, 2009 Posted by | Torture | Leave a comment

Meet the New Boss

During his election campaign, Senator Obama promised that he would if elected bring real “change” to Washington, as opposed to his opponent, who would bring “more of the same.” Now that Mr. Obama is President-Elect, things are becoming somewhat murkier. Exhibit A. Intellegence Policy to Stay Largely Intact: Continue reading

November 14, 2008 Posted by | Election, Foreign Policy, Torture | Leave a comment

Torture Widespread in Palestinian Jails

Two human rights groups on Monday decried widespread torture of political opponents by bitter Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah, and Associated Press interviews with three victims and a doctor backed the reports of abuse.

The findings emerged as the two sides carried out fresh arrest sweeps in the West Bank and Gaza — highlighting deep tensions in the Palestinian territories after a flare-up in violence over the weekend.

In the West Bank on Monday, the security forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rounded up more than 50 suspected Hamas supporters, including mosque preachers and intellectuals, in retaliation for a similar sweep of Fatah loyalists in Gaza, set off by a bombing that killed five Hamas members Friday.

Hamas violently seized power in Gaza in June 2007, leaving the Islamic militant group in charge of the coastal territory and Abbas’ forces controlling the West Bank.

The Palestinian human rights group Al Haq said Monday that arbitrary arrests of political opponents have been common since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, with each side trying to defend its turf.


July 29, 2008 Posted by | Israel, Torture | Leave a comment

More on Torture

Yesterday’s post on the subject hardly exhausted all the practical reasons against using torture on terror suspects (to cite but one omission, torturing a suspect will likely mean that he can never be brought to trial and forced to answer for what he has done). However, the post was, I think, sufficient to show that torture “does not work” and should not be used or condoned or winked at by the United States. Nevertheless, there is one other consideration which I would like to highlight, a consideration that, to use a mixed metaphor, tips the scales against the use of torture beyond all reasonable doubt. That consideration is this. The War on Terror is not only a battle fo bombs and bullets, it is a battle of ideas. By engaging in torture, by defending it, legitimizing it, codifying it in our law, we cede a portion of the moral high ground in that battle, which is worth more to us in practical terms than several Army divisions. Our use of torture makes people who are inclined to love this country love us less and those who are inclined to hate us hate us more. When we condemn human rights abuses in other countries our condemnation will have less credibility. When Europeans and Leftists attack American policy, those attacks will have more credibility. And when American solders fall into enemy hands, they will be more likely to be mistreated. Continue reading

April 25, 2008 Posted by | Torture | Leave a comment

Does Torture Work?

Does torture work? As Bill Clinton might have said, it depends on what you mean by “work.” If your goal is to extract a confession for use at one of Stalin’s show trials, then torture works well enough. If, on the other hand, your goal is to get reliable intelligence out of a person, to get him for example, to tell you the details of a potential terror plot or name his confederates, then just as clearly torture does not work. A person being tortured is liable to say just about anything to get the pain to stop and isn’t apt to be much of a stickler for whether or not his statements are true. Since there is no way to separate the true from the false screams, answers given by a suspect under torture are worse than worthless and should never form a part of our interrogation policy.

It is true that torture could sometimes produce accurate information. So can a magic eight ball, but no one would think to build our counter-terrorism strategy around the answers it gives. If I ask the magic eight ball whether it will rain tomorrow the answer it gives might be accurate, but it won’t be reliable. Magic eight balls are sometimes right, but are very often wrong, and since there is no way to tell if an answer it gives is accurate or not its answers are never reliable and only a fool would rely on them. So also with torture. If one scours the Internet, one might find a few cases in which the use of torture produced accurate intelligence (though not nearly as many as you might think). But so what? Police sometimes employ psychics to help them solve crimes, and I’m sure there have been a few cases where information provided by the psychics have led police to a breakthrough in the case. This doesn’t mean that we ought to be employing psychics in the war on terror. You might as well argue that the lottery is a good financial investment because people do occasionally win it. We can only get the benefit of the information torture produces if we are willing to rely on it without knowing whether or not it is true. Since this is self-evidently a bad policy, the only logical choice is to forgo the use of torture altogether in favor of more reliable interrogation techniques. Continue reading

April 24, 2008 Posted by | Torture | 2 Comments

The Theology of the Body in Pain

Today at Inside Catholic, blogger extraodinaire Eve Tushnet has an interesting review of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which deals with in part with the use and effects of torture. Some excerpts:

In torture, every action is used against you: standing, sitting, even swallowing. (Scarry notes that forced, repeated swallowing was used as torture in Greece, where it was called “making knots”: “Only when a person throws his head back and swallows three times does he begin to apprehend what is involved in one hundred and three or three hundred and three swallows, what atrocities one’s own body, muscle, and bone structure can inflict on oneself.”) Every bodily function is used to hurt and humiliate.

Torture warps language. Torturers, and their apologists, retreat into newspeak terms like “enhanced interrogation”: jargon to hide the reality of muscles in agony after hours of “stress positions,” or the hallucinations of sleep deprivation. Scarry notes, “Standing rigidly for eleven hours can produce as violent muscle and spine pain as can injury from elaborate equipment and apparatus, though any of us outside this situation, used to adjusting our body positions every few moments before even mild discomfort is felt, may not immediately recognize this.”

To describe practices like forced nudity and hooding (obscuring the most obviously human and individual characteristic, the face, and exposing the genitals in defiance of modesty) as “only” humiliation is to misunderstand the entire logic of torture: Dehumanization is thedefinition of torture, and humiliation is the primary means of dehumanization. Recall that two of the most searing photographs from Abu Ghraib — an American woman with a naked Iraqi man on a leash, and a hooded, shrouded man on a box — depict “only” humiliation and “stress positions.”


February 14, 2008 Posted by | Torture | Leave a comment