Saturday, May 02, 2009

Torture 101

A friend and colleague of mine invited me to come speak to his class about torture last week. The class was a writing seminar, organized around the theme of "citizenship," and my colleague was feeling (understandably) frustrated because-- in his words-- he "just didn't feel like [he] had the tools or the knowledge to counter arguments by students who want to justify torture on the basis of what they see on 24." I understand the frustration, and as reluctant as I might feel about being the local "torture expert," I agreed to go. I sent them a short article by Jessica Wolfendale called "Training Torturers: A Critique of the 'Ticking Bomb' Argument" in advance, which presses the justification of torture argument to one of it's logical consequences, namely, the necessity for trained torturers. I like this article because it forces us to talk about the permissability or impermissability of torture in terms other than strictly "moral" terms. Rather, we must consider what sort of polity we are creating (and endorsing) when we say that torture is permissable. It also, importantly, allows me to address some of the most common misperceptions about torture.

Like my colleague, I also find myself frustrated by many of these conversations. I want to say: "But it's just WRONG! Why are we even HAVING this discussion!" And when I'm sitting at home by myself, listening to the news reports and commentaries, I often do just that. But the more and more research I do on torture, the more I realize that it may be to the advantage of "my" side of the argument (that is, the torture-is-always-wrong side) to re-frame the discussion as something other than a contest of ethical standards. For one thing, doing so avoids the inevitable name-calling contest ("You're a heartless monster!" "Well, you're soft on terror!" "You don't care about human rights!" "Well, you're willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds/thousands/millions for one criminal!"), which are never very productive and very seldom change anyone's mind. So, for those of you who are finding youself similarly frustrated, here are some valuable nuggets to use in your future tête-à-têtes:

1. Torture doesn't "work."
The idea that torture is an effective means of obtaining information is the single biggest falsehood employed by people who want to defend the practice of torture. Their argument will almost always involve some reference to 24 or to the ticking time-bomb scenario. If you encounter either of these arguments, you might first point out that both are FICTION! But, if you need something more, try pointing your interlocutor to the study cosponsored by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity (full report here), which concluded that torture has NEVER been proven an effective interrogative device. Or you could point out actual examples of bad information produced by coercive interrogations (like the Al Qaeda-Iraq link) that have resulted in thousands of lost lives in a war begun as a result of that bad information. Most veteran CIA operatives and military personnel agree that torture only produces bad information, as torture victims will say anything to make their suffering stop. For the record, torture victims (like Sen. John McCain) have said the same thing. The important point is that none of this information is hard to find, an oft-overlooked fact elaborated by Soviet human rights expert Vladimir Bukovsky, who wrote an op-ed in for the Washington Post showing that even governments that have first-hand knowledge that torture doesn't work still use it. You may also point out that, even on the television show 24, torture rarely "works."

2. There is no such thing as a "science" of pain.
When we think of torture, we tend to revert back to the imaginative sci-fi version of it, in which a victim is placed on a table while some torturer stands by a machine with his hand on an ominous-looking numbered dial. As the victim resists, the torturer cranks the dial higher, increasing the suffering bit by numbered-bit. The problem is, pain doesn't happen that way. The way people experience pain (physical and psychological) is radically, unpredictably idiosyncratic. It doesn't increase in numbered increments to some pre-designed "breaking point." Our bodies have all sorts of ways of managing pain; our minds even more. This creates immense problems for the practice of torture. First, there's no way for the torturer to know what he can do, short of death, to get the information he wants... so he is naturally inclined to go to the furthest extreme that he "guesses" will be effective and to do so the quickest. (Hence, there cannot be a "controlled" or "restrained" practice of torture.) Second, the imagined "breaking point" is different for everyone, which forces torturers to get creative. (Hence, regulatory "codes" for torture are ALWAYS violated.) Third, by the time the torture victim gets to his or her "breaking point," both the mind and the body have been broken and are at that point entirely unreliable. (Hence, torture produces bad information.) Finally, torture requires that the torturer make himself immune to the suffering of others and, consequently, requires that he make himself the least qualified person to spot the "truth" or to know when to stop. We've got to stop believing what Darius Rejali calls "the folklore of pain." There are no such things as torture "dials" and, even if there were, there is no number on them that could mean anything definitively knowable. The purpose of torture is to produce pain at the furthest extremes of human tolerance, and that sort of pain is an almost entirely unscientific phenomenon.

3. No, you probably wouldn't do it.
When discussing torture, you will often hear people say something like: "Well, if I were in a situation where someone was threatening my child/brother/parent/wife/etc., I would do anything necessary to stop them... even if that meant torture." The truth is, most of us not only wouldn't, but couldn't. Despite the oft-cited phenomena of the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment, studies show that it's not so easy for most people to cause pain to others. It's important to remember also that those experiments showed that under certain conditions--primarily conditions that exploited our trust and confidence in authority figures-- some people might forego their independent moral standards. The studies did not show that we all could do it, nor did they show that any of us could do it in a situation in which we had to make the independent decision to do so. In fact, an ABCNews poll showed that the majority of Americans oppose torture. Further, the majority of Americans know very little about the ugly, messy, protracted, bloody, horrible details of torture. Torture requires that the torturer disengage from almost all of his or her normal (and normative) assumptions about morality, sociality, and humanity. It requires that he or she suppress or ignore most of his or her natural revulsions to horrific sights, sounds, smells and (tactile) feelings. And then there's the matter of the non-tactile "feelings," which the torturer must betray or restrain. In most cases, the likelihood that your interlocutor possesses the discipline and callousness required for torture is almost nil. My suggestion would be that you encourage them to actually read the accounts of torturers, then to read the accounts of the tortured... and only then to come back and try to make their heroic argument again.

4. It doesn't matter if torture works (which it doesn't). It doesn't matter if polls support it (which they don't). It doesn't matter if you would do it (which you probably wouldn't). TORTURE IS ILLEGAL!
I like the argument made by constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley on the Rachel Maddow show, when he said: "It’s obviously disturbing to hear torture still referred to by the president as a “technique.” That’s like saying bank robbery is a “technique” for withdrawing money from a bank. It’s not a “technique”, it’s a crime…" According to Marjorie Cohn, what torture has in common with genocide, slavery and wars of aggression is that they are all matters of jus cogens (Latin for "higher law" or "compelling law"). That is why no country can ever pass a law that allows for torture, slavery or genocide. That is why we have federal laws that criminalize torture, why it is forbidden by our Constitution, why we have signed international agreements like the Geneva Convention. That is also why, unfortunately, we have seen our federal government (not to mention some of our friends) twist themselves into ideological pretzels trying to redefine torture, or to justify it, or to call forth exceptional circumstances. For all of the arguments in favor of torture, none of them are framed as they should be, which would require FIRST explaining how breaking the law is permissable. And, also unfortunately, none of the arguments for torture follow the logic all the way through, which would require making torture legal. If you want to really challenge your interlocutor in a debate about torture, ask them to try drafting that law that makes torture legal. In what circumstances? To what extent? Using what "techniques"? For what purposes? Then, ready yourself to grab them as they begin to slip down that very, very slippery slope...


anotherpanacea said...

I like this post a lot. You've laid out systematically a set of arguments at which I've only ever taken a few stabs, always coming back to thought-stifling rage that we must still have this conversation. You've pushed through the moral indignation to the reasons on the other side, and that's an act of supreme philosophical virtue. Thanks!

The strongest argument you give is actually the unnumbered one, about the 'kind of polity' we want, and the problem of institutionalizing torturous interrogations. That said, some of these other arguments are quite good as well: I've been trying to persuade opponents of torture to make argument #1 since 9/11, and I find that #2 really elucidates something about the way that others talk about torture that I find helpful. We do imagine it's much more scientific than it really is, and the secrecy and triumphalism around waterboarding really drove that point home.

I don't see the normative force of #3, since of course there are those who -would- torture and the intuition pump of a loved-one in danger doesn't lose its efficacy in the face of statistics. In contrast, both the Milgram and Stanford experiments are valuable for helping people see why their moral intuitions are deeply problematic and blameworthy, rather than just inaccurate.

Philosophically, #4 seems the weakest. I myself have always found it absolutely unpersuasive, and I'm a fellow-traveler. Arguments from divine command or natural justice strike me as wholly missing the point: if you look at the way the Bush administration went about justifying itself, it was by first acknowledging that something (thumbscrews, for instance, or drawing and quartering) were proscribed, illegal and unjust. Then they take an extreme on the other side, like yelling, and argue that everything in between is a grey area. It's ultimately a going to be a substantive ethical question where to draw the line, not simply a feature of justice or a metaprinciple of any legitimate legal system. Reference to the jus cogens begs the question: if we want to know whether torture SHOULD be against the law, we can't say that it SHOULD be because it already IS.

Anyway, loved the post, and I'd invite you to springboard from this into some weak humanism discussions. Great stuff!

DOCTOR J said...


Just a note of clarification: I agree with you that the argument "well, it's the law" is not persuasive all by itself. After all, segregation was the law at one point. But, unlike segregation, advocates of torture never bother to argue that the extant laws against torture are "unjust laws." That's an argument they should be forced to make, I think.

The normative force of #3 comes in understanding exactly the sorts of conditions that make torture seem like an option for the average person. What the Stanford and Milgram experiments show is that it is only under extreme and exploitative circumstances that "average" people are pushed beyond their normal moral intuitions. In fact, my point in including #3 was just to show that, contrary to what most people believe, the inclination to torture is NOT a normal moral intuition. That is, absent some sanctioning authority or some other set of conditions that would make it seem like a viable option, MOST people wouldn't all on their own resort to torture... even in the most extreme circumstances. That's not to say that our moral intuition to *not* torture is enough to make the argument against it, but it does go a long way, I think, toward pointing out to people that despite what they may think, not only are they not the "heroes" they may imagine themselves to be, but they may need to rethink the conditions under which we come to consider these sorts of behaviors "heroic" in the first place.