Free Markets, Free People

Torture: What Is It Good For?

Paralleling the song, the answer should be “absolutely nothing” with a testosterone laced “Huhn!” thrown in for good measure. Personally, I have my doubts.

This is not a new topic here at QandO, as my esteemed brethren have weighed in on numerous occasions, each time settling on an emphatic “No! Torture is not acceptable.” While it would be difficult, if not impossible, to put into words the esteem that I hold for my blog brothers, I have to say that I disagree. That may be because I have never been in the military, nor been subjected to anything close to the sort of forced life-or-death decision making that breeds a camaraderie distinct unto itself. And it may be because I have the luxury (thanks to said camaraderie) to simply ponder these things at my leisure. Just the same, I cannot say that I am opposed to torture of our nation’s enemies, nor can I honestly say that any experience will change my opinion.

First, the reason I even broach the subject: release of “secret torture memos” (link added):

President Barack Obama’s administration said it would Thursday release four memos, with sections blacked out, covering the Bush administration’s justification for CIA interrogations of terror suspects … The memos were authored by Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury, who at the time were lawyers for the then-president George W. Bush’s Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel.

The memos provided the legal framework for a program of interrogations of “war on terror” detainees that included techniques widely regarded as torture such as waterboarding, in which a detainee is made to feel like he is drowning.

I have not read the memos, and I probably won’t. The sole reason being that I’ve slogged through enough of these legal documents to have a pretty good idea of what’s in there, and to know that there is plenty of qualifying language to mitigate whatever damning quotes are eventually culled therefrom. In point of fact, these “memos” are little more than legal research projects specifically drafted so as to provide both the underlying judicial framework for the issue at hand, and the best guess at how the current policy might fit into that framework under certain factual parameters. They are merely legalese for “this is what the law says, and this is how the policy may not run afoul of that law.”

Leaving aside definitional problems (does being confined with an insect constitute “torture”?), let’s just assume that what the memos described was not only policy, but a policy that was carried out. Why is that a bad thing?

Tom Maguire provides some thoughts:

IN OUR NAME: The newly released torture memos are cold-blooded and clearly client-driven – the lawyers knew the answers they wanted and reasoned backwards. Quick thoughts:

1. The US concern about actually harming someone comes through on every page. In fact, at one point (p. 36 of .pdf) the legal team wonders whether it would be illegal for the interrogators to threaten or imply that conditions for the prisoner could get even worse unless they cooperate. I suppose these memos will provide welcome reassurance of our underlying civility to both the world community and the terrorists in it.

2. There are some fascinating legal gymnastics on display. My favorite might be on p. 39, where we learn that Article 16 of the Geneva Convention does not apply because the CIA is operating in areas not under US jurisdiction. Nor do the protections of the US Constitution extend to aliens being held prisoner under US control but abroad outside of US jurisdiction.

However, another contender for the “It Would Take A Lawyer To Think Of This” prize is the argument that waterboarding does not constitute a threat of imminent death because, even though the prisoner thinks they are drowning, they are not, and anyway, the mental effect is transitory and does not result in long term mental harm – call it the “Psych!” defense. (The absence of long term harm comes from the experience of US sailors and soldiers passing through SERE school in the service of their country; whether a jihadist waterboarded by the Great Satan would also rebound psychologically is not explored here). I would think that a game of Russian Roulette played with a fake bullet might pass all these requirements other than the SERE experience.

Tom’s comparison to Russian Roulette intrigues me because I think it is the perfect analogy. I’ve written before that, in my opinion, waterboarding crosses the legal line because of the way the law is written. I’ve never been convinced that the technique crosses any moral boundary because I’m not so sure that it’s any different than placing a caterpillar in the same cell as a man who’s deathly afraid of caterpillars. Playing on the mind’s fears is part and parcel of both manipulation and torture, but does not mean that the two are equivalent. Morally speaking, therefore, I have doubts that techniques akin to waterboarding amount to “torture” per se.

But assuming that they do, again, what exactly is the problem? Aficionados of the subject will say that torture is ineffectual. Yet, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would appear to be a test case in contrast to that wisdom, as would the fact that our own soldiers are routinely informed that “everyone breaks eventually.” Moreover, if it really is ineffectual, why does it continue to happen? Clearly, somebody somewhere is getting results.

Even leaving aside the efficacy vel non of torture, does it hold such moral deficiency as to abandon it altogether? Here I plead ignorance because, in my mind, I view enemies to my country as enemies to my family. By that I mean, if anyone were to hurt, or even threaten to hurt, a member of my family, I can’t even begin to express the unholy hell I would visit upon such a cretin. When I view A Time To Kill I can’t help but think that that the murderous, rapist scum got off too lightly (which, of course, was the point of Grisham’s characterization). Other than the fear of anything nefarious happening to my children, my greatest fear is of what I would try to do to those who hurt them or even suggested that they might do so. I have the same feeling when it comes to anyone who seeks to destroy my country and her citizens with whom I’ve (gratefully) cast my lot. My morality directs me to say that what any of you visit upon the least of my fellow countrymen, I will repay you a thousandfold and more. That may be my Irish bravado speaking, but it speaks as honestly as any man possibly can.

So I am left with the conundrum of how my actions in response to an attack on my family should be any different than an attack on my country, and why I should feel any differently about the perpetrators of such actions, whether they have followed through with their plans or not. I understand that my response — i.e. the sanctioning of “torture” — may not be entirely rational. Indeed, if a firetruck runs over my child while rushing to save an orphanage, I would feel no less grief, and probably wish an equal amount of horror upon the transgressors as I would upon 19 hijackers who murdered 3,000 of of my fellow citizens. In fact, probably more. There is nothing particularly rational in such a response. But I have little confidence that, should I have the chance to avoid either disaster, I would refrain from running the perpetrators’ minds through a psychological cheese grater if there was even a small chance that the disaster could be avoided. That may be little more than a testament to my weakness as a moral human being, but I think that I’m not alone.

Torture, however defined, is not a pretty thing. I make no bones about having zero regard for my enemies (i.e. those who want to destroy my country a la 9/11). If subjecting them to extreme psychological and/or physical discomfort, or the threat of such, will prevent further attacks, then I confess that I am happy to reward those monsters with the penalty they richly deserve. I accept that I may be wrong in such thinking, but I don’t find that case has been successfully made as of yet. Indeed, I defy you to take this test and declare that “torture” can never be acceptable.

The ultimate point is, torture is a horrible thing and should be avoided if at all humanly possible. But, unfortunately, we live in a world where the “humanly possible” has limits. In those cases, why is it that torture should be off limits? Is there a rational reason? I’m willing to be convinced, but I have my doubts.

44 Responses to Torture: What Is It Good For?

  • I read the book “The Interrogators” which detailed the experiences of US Army interrorgators in Afghanistan right after 9/11. It was very interesting reading, and while starting out saying that torture doesn’t work, towards the end the author wonders about that, especially as the prisoners were often most afraid of being sent back to torturing regimes.

    The book is also excellent in the examples of who we are dealing with and how law enforcement style warfare will be very difficult…my favorite example were the two arab males caught entering Afghanistan dressed in Burqas. So….what laws are they breaking? None. But its obvious they are coming to fight.  Do you just release them? With Habeas Corpus rights could they even be detained at all?

  • Oh, and for the record…I am against torture. Note sure if waterboarding is or not. 

    If we do want to do anything remotely close to it, like a bug in a box or waterboarding I would want the CIA doing it, and I would limit the number of personell who could do it. If only 3 people can perform a waterboarding, there is a physical limit to how much we could do, which might help prevent any slippery slope to randomly waterboard Kabul taxi drivers, etc.

    Military should never do it. 

  • The mantra “torture does not work” is an example of modern Newspeak and not the product of a rational mind.  Of course it will work in order to gain useful information. Like every other endeavor it won’t work 100% of the time, but so what. 

    If we did not live under the threat of weapons of mass destruction then perhaps we could have the luxury of saying no torture ever. But we live in the real world where such self imposed limitations might produce a disaster in which many millions die.

  • “Moreover, if it really is ineffectual, why does it continue to happen? Clearly, somebody somewhere is getting results”

    My understanding…or at least what i’ve read is that waterboarding was done in 2002-2003 on 4 or 5 captured high value targets and hasn’t been used since…or hasn’t been leaked to the press since.

    As for “torture”, it’s got to be clearly defined OR I have to fall back on what I think is torture. To me, anything method(s) where the threat of death is very low or nonexistent and there is no physical disfigurement should be in the tool box and the value of the target should be taken into account when choosing the method. Higher value, harsher techniques allowed.

    Further, I know i’m on the outside looking in on this entire issue but it seems to me that we need to clearly define what is in that toolbox and make sure that it is adequate for all occasions thus eliminating the need for abrupt changes to the rules and all the sudden clueless finger pointing.

  • Well, having zero regard for people you consider your enemies and being willing to do whatever you want to them certainly has the effect of assuring that you have no moral standing to condemn it if they feel the same way about people who they believe are their enemies.   And while people do break, it’s evident that they don’t usually give accurate information.  Add to that the way in which this thing hurts America’s reputation and makes us appear hypocritical to the world — an empire that tortures in the name of human rights, paranoid that people want to ‘destroy our country’ (eyes rolling) — well, that’s the road to  ruin.  Luckily, I think the American people were smart enough to choose a different path.

    • Well, torture is just yucky. Besides, having zero regard for people you consider your enemies and being willing to do whatever you want to them certainly has the effect of assuring that you have no moral standing to condemn it if they feel the same way about people who they believe are their enemies. And the fact that they’re going to act in immoral ways no matter what we do or say, and are completely contemptuous of our opinions, is completely beside the point. It’s the moral standing that counts! We wise leftists need that so that our godlike powers of political science can work, and we also need to judge exactly what level of moral standing is necessary. After all, you dense righties might give into torture to save a million people, and that’s obviously immoral by the holy writ of postmodernism.

      And while people do break, it’s evident that they don’t usually give accurate information. So since it isn’t perfect, we should never do it. And the fact that one time working might save hundreds or thousands of people while it doesn’t even kill the guy being tortured is completely and utterly beside the point and you should stop saying it!!! Don’t you realize how degrading it is to have pictures of naked women shoved in front of your face?!? I certainly couldn’t stand it, and I’d never be the same psychologically afterwards.

      Add to that the way in which this thing hurts America’s reputation and makes us appear hypocritical to the world — an empire that tortures in the name of human rights. Yes, they’re all worked up about our hypocrisy, and the idea that they commit terrorist acts on a mass scale just because of their religious fanaticism is just obvious hoohah. I’m telling you, if were less hypocritical they would all covert to a peaceful, pastoral version is Islam and live in happiness and peace forever.

      But no, we have to appear paranoid that people want to ‘destroy our country’ (eyes rolling) — well, that’s the road to ruin. I mean, really, what’s a few thousand dead people every few years? A small price to pay to avoid icky wars and torture, don’t you think? Plus reassuring we wise leftists so that we can sleep at night untroubled by the ickiness of war and torture that might be going on somewhere. Because I just can’t stand to think about it. But that doesn’t make me a coward like that stupid Justin Case guy says, so you really, really ought to stop saying that!

      Luckily, I think the American people were smart enough to choose a different path. Because they listen to we wise leftists, they know that war is icky, and torture is icky, and showing those people jumping from the twin towers is even ickier.

    • Well, having zero regard for people you consider your enemies and being willing to do whatever you want to them certainly has the effect of assuring that you have no moral standing to condemn it if they feel the same way about people who they believe are their enemies.

      Whose morals?  What moral yardstick?  From whence do these morals come?  Do you think that Palestinians have any moral standing in the world?  People still defend the choices of Iran, but do they have a history of respecting their enemies?  Your moral preening is a bit thin and indeterminate.

      And while people do break, it’s evident that they don’t usually give accurate information.

      Then it wouldn’t be called “breaking” would it?  Giving inaccurate information is the point of resistance.

      Add to that the way in which this thing hurts America’s reputation and makes us appear hypocritical to the world — …

      I again refer you to Palestinians. 

      an empire that tortures in the name of human rights, paranoid that people want to ‘destroy our country’ (eyes rolling) — well, that’s the road to  ruin.

      Are really so naive as to think that there aren’t people who want to destroy America?  I’ll give you a hint so you too can identify them: they typically chant slogans such as “Death to America!” and/or “the Great Satan” and some have been known to fly large objects into tall buildings.

      Luckily, I think the American people were smart enough to choose a different path.

      Yeah, Obama is gonna be completely different.  Just keep telling yourself that one.

    • Scott pays not attention to what I say and never reads what I write… – – [17/Apr/2009:10:24:47 -0400] “GET /wp-content/themes/default/style.css HTTP/1.1” 200 9642 “” “”

      …so it’s pointless for me to comment.

  • Thanks for the plug, and let me throw in a “wow” – I was going to put in an UPDATE wondering what Barack Obama would do if terrorists kidnapped Sasha, Malia, and their little dog, too, but the CIA managed to take a captive with useful information.  My point would have been similar to yours – I have no doubt Obama would dust off the old Bush memos and the old Bush interrogators and do whatever it took.  So why is he lauded for being so high-minded about protecting American ideals and the rule of law when it is other people’s kids at risk?

    Oh, well – Obama was lauded for years for defending public campaign financd, until he abandoned it.  And my daughters are cute as all get out and would poll well, so I expect he would do the right thing in that case as well.

    I think “cheap grace” is th ephrase I am looking for here.

  • Shorter Michael Wade:

    Although I’ve never had any experience with torture, and although I haven’t a clue as to what was involved in the US torturing prisoners, and I really don’t care to know anything about it… Torture just feels right.

    • Shorter Pogue: “I will not think, ergo I will not matter.”

      • Oh that’s rich.  Because this is the result of your “pondering.”
        It took you about 1000 words to basically say, “I don’t know anything about torture.  My feelings about torture maybe irrational.  But those bastards gets me Irish up, and now I wanna hurt someone.”

        You choose to ignore all of the rational reasons to oppose the US torturing prisoners and instead focus on rage and revenge masked in what you no doubt believe is an intellectual argument.
        You pick what you deem a “test case”, one case which supposedly had favorable results, yet choose to ignore or deny any and all consequences of Americans being seen as torturers throughout the world, not to mention the fact that innocent people might get tortured in the process.  You pick the infamous caterpillar example to show how harmless some of the tortures are, yet you choose to ignore some of the more egregious examples we now know existed.  (By the way, if you’re ever in SE Texas, drop on by.  I’ve got a confined space that I can put in some insects that most people fear, and you can stand in there.  I promise you won’t get hurt and that there won’t be any “long term” effects.  Mmk?  Not to prove anything, you understand… Just for sh!ts and giggles.  I know I’d have fun!)

        Also, what’ s with your logic that if people continue to do something, then there must be a good reason?  Seems to be a returning theme of yours.
        You thought that since McCain was campaigning in Pennsylvania so close to election day even though the polls showed he was ten points behind, then that must mean that McCain’s internal polling suggested otherwise or why else would McCain be doing this.

        You know Michael, sometimes people do things because they feel they have to.  Or do things just because they want to.  Or maybe do things because they think it’s the right thing to do.  There doesn’t have to be a valid or justly defended reason.
        And just because you want to hurt these wankers, doesn’t mean that torturing people is a good idea.


  • Our country has:

    1.  Burned cities and destroyed civilian infrastructure in a deliberate attempt to drive a civilian population to surrender (Atlanta, Hamburg, Tokyo)

    2.  Used poison gas (World War I)

    3.  Waged unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking without warning merchant and passenger ships (World War II)

    4.  Used nuclear weapons against civilian targets

    5.  Stockpiled nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons

    6.  Rounded up and locked away or deported whole classes of people without benefit of trial (World War I, “Red Scare”, World War II)

    7.  Practiced what amounts to genocide against native populations (Indian Wars, Phillipine Insurrection)

    Before anybody starts thinking I’ve gone Howard Zinn, let me say clearly that, while I wish to God that we’d never had to do these things, I’M GLAD WE DID THEM.  I merely offer them as facts in evidence and ask whether or not “torturing” some terrorist scumbag is somehow SOOOO much worse than these things, or how we can plausibly claim that we’ve got some sort of national corner on the morality market in light of our history.  Through our history, we’ve done what we’ve felt we HAD to do in order to safeguard our country… just like any other rational people.

    Echoing Michael W, my country is precious to me, and I’m willing to do or have done whatever it takes (which, during the Cold War, could have included incinerating about 600 million other people in communist bloc countries) to protect and defend it.  I’m not especially interested in trying to keep some moral high ground if the result of such preening is the deaths of thousands – perhaps millions – of my fellow citizens.  I add that I support the right of parents and teachers to paddle naughty children even though I normally regard hitting a child as a moral outrage.  I support the right of the police to, under certain circumstances, shoot and kill criminal suspects even though I normally regard homocide as a moral outrage.  I support the right of our military to use nuclear weapons on enemy cities even though I normally regard killing innocent civilians (including women and children) is a moral outrage.  I support the right of our intelligence agencies to take a terrorist suspect apart with a chainsaw even though I normally regard such gratuitous and even sadistic violence as a moral outrage.

    Life often presents difficult choices, and there are often times when ANY choice is bad.  The final yardstick is “the greatest good for the greatest number”; if it takes torturing terrorists to keep 300 million Americans safer, then I support it.

    • I am by no means a pacifist or an America basher. I am a combat infantry veteran and love my country, right or wrong. But I’m also willing to call a spade a $%#&ing shovel. Some of the things you cited were acceptable and reasonable. Others were war crimes, and I take issue with the comment that “I wish to God that we’d never had to do these things”, because we didn’t need to do them.

      William Sherman admitted that he should have been hanged for war crimes. The bombing campaigns against Hamburg and Tokyo were likewise criminal. Hamburg was actually bombed by the Brits and it was purely in retaliation for the London blitz, the goal was to literally wipe Hamburg (a civilian target) “off of the map”. Winston Churchill (by no measure a pantywaist), one of the campaign’s chief architects, after seeing the results at one point said “Are we animals, have we taken this too far?” The Tokyo firebombing was directed at industry, which was interspersed in residential areas, but I am highly skeptical of the strategic benefit. It killed almost 100,000 civilians, by U.S. estimates.

      Saying that one is willing to do “whatever it takes” to supposedly preserve their country flies in the face of that same country’s very tenets and those of libertarianism. Using spanking, shooting a criminal, and nuclear war to attempt to parallel torture are, to me, false analogies. Of course, coercion has a use, and there is a continuum of appropriate applications of force. But “torture” (in the true sense of the word) is more akin to pedophilia or homicide (in the true senses of those words): there is no acceptable continuum for it.

      “The final yardstick is “the greatest good for the greatest number”; if it takes torturing terrorists to keep 300 million Americans safer, then I support it.”

      This does not make sense to me. Can you define a scenario where this would conceivably occur? IF, by some long odds, an event like that ever came to pass, I would be willing to bet that the interrogator would likely not give a damn about laws and would do what needed to be done.

      Think of it this way: If there was an impending attack, the interrogators would almost certainly not know of it. So, this leads me to believe that a pro-torture advocate would say that we should always extract information as quickly as possible, meaning we should almost always escalate to torture. But in the vast majority of instances, the tortured would have no knowledge of value to give. If that is the case, during torture, he will say anything in an attempt to make it stop. Since I think the occurrence of a “ticking time bomb” situation are almost infinitesimal, this would result in a massive influx of worthless intelligence, all of which would require checking, which would be a vast waste of resources that could be better used elsewhere.

      I’ve read The Centurions by Jean Larteguy (he envisioned the “ticking time bomb”), and the Battle of the Casbah by Paul Aussaresses, the chief architect of the use of torture during the Battle of Algiers. If you read the latter, he argues for torture, but in the book, you see how useless it really is — the victories they had were not because of torture, but good intelligence and counterinsurgency work.

      • I think that an excellent case could be made that EVERY item I listed was a war crime.  Yet, we didn’t lock up or hang the officers and politicians responsible for ordering them done.  Indeed, we venerate them for winning the wars that they fought.  My point remains: there are cases when even the most morally-repugnant act may be  not only necessary, but commendable IF COMMITTING THE ACT PREVENTS A GREATER HARM.

        “You’re going to destroy a swath of Georgia, deliberately burning civilian shops and homes, destroying roads and railways that civilians use to ship food and other necessities, and perhaps create widespread famine and disease and death among helpless women and children?  Why in the name of God would you do such a thing, General Sherman?”

        “Because it will shorten or end the war, saving tens of thousands of lives that will inevitably be lost if this terrible war continues.”

        “Oh.  OK, then.”

        You ask about some sort of scenario in which it might really be useful to torture.  OK:

        The Pakistani government falls and is replaced be an islamofascist regime, similar to the Taliban.  It has ties to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.  We get intelligence information that one or more Pakistani nuclear warheads have been transferred to al Qaeda.  al Qaeda boasts in a communique that it will destroy the capital of the Great Satan’s empire in ten days.  We capture a senior AQ member like KSM who we think has knowledge of the bomb plot.  What do we do with him?

        Tick… tick… tick…

        • I have some difficulty in understanding your argument, because the examples you provide don’t make a lot of sense to me. Not in the sense that (most of) these things were necessary for a greater good.

          Sherman, in becoming so wrapped up in destroying anything he perceived as part of the Conferate War machine (a somewhat tertiary objective in Grant’s orders) neglected his primary mission: to destroy Johnston’s army. His failure to do that left it alive to cause further harm. It is my opinion that Sherman’s rationale for “total war” was to punish the secessionists. The bombing of Hamburg was vindictive, not strategic. Poison gas usage in World War I on the part of the Allies was reactionary, and did not either aid significant advantages or inflict a significant percentage of enemy casualties. The first British usage in response to Ypres, in fact, was a disaster. Allied gas warfare was always several steps behind the Germans. In fact, far from benefiting the U.S. or allies, gas almost blew the war wide open for the Germans… I don’t see how, to use your phrase, “what amounted to genocide” against the American Indians was commendable. I believe the United States could have expanded and become the great nation it is without having waged the Pequot War or engineered the Trail of Tears, etc. What greater harm did these things prevent?

          As for your example of a “ticking time bomb” scenario, like I said earlier, I find it unlikely that all of these somewhat improbable events would align at the same time. Nevertheless, while I think it is unlikely, it is certainly within the realm of possibility. I’ll repeat the solution that I wrote earlier in this thread: if such a nightmare scenario does ever manifest itself, it is best to rely on individual Americans to determine if the use of torture is appropriate. If they believe that the inherent risk is so great and that the suspect is likely in possession of useful information, then they will be willing to stake their career and potentially criminal prosecution on it.

          It would be wrongheaded to legalize torture in any manner for a number of reasons. It would be open to abuse, it would yield bad intelligence, it would reduce our international prestige, it would reduce the safety of our soldiers held as prisoners of war, it would reduce our moral authority to speak out against human rights abusing regimes, it would increase anti-Americanism and the ensuing outrage could potentially increase violence against citizens overseas, etc.

          • Now, having said all that… Since it seems the Bush administration DID allow some specific instances of “torture” (by some definition), it is reprehensible that an American president would unseal that. This should be BURIED for the good of American interests, not published.

            That was nothing more than a political stunt so Obama can go “look, I was serious about transparency, see, see!” Forget that we have a tax cheat running the IRS.

          • Sorry I didn’t express myself clearly.  I suppose that one could argue that I am excusing bad behavior (torture) by pointing out when we have committed other bad behavior (March to the Sea, firebombing, etc).  Really, I’m trying to point out when we, like other countries, have done what we felt that we had to do in the interests of our national security, and trying to point out to those who wax hysterical about torture that, well, it might not be the worst thing we’ve ever done or ever could do.  I’m not sure why it’s so morally outrageous for a country to torture a terrorist when that same country stands ready to incinerate millions of people with nuclear weapons, for example.

            I am not happy with the idea, suggested by you and some other commenters, that we ought to rely on people to make the right decision on their own about torture if it was ever REALLY necessary.  We don’t hand out missile keys to combat missile crews with the happy assumption that they will just sort of know when to use them, just as we don’t give batons and guns to police officers without considerable training about the rules governing when they can use them.  Why can we not establish similar policies regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques”?

            I’m also not particularly impressed when people pooh-pooh the “ticking time bomb” scenario as “unlikely”, because the unlikely has an unfortunate habit of occurring.  Had somebody told me on 9-10-01 that a bunch of murderers with box cutters would hijack airliners and fly them into buildings, I would have suggested that they’ve been reading waaaayyyy too many Tom Clancy novels.  I’m sure that, had somebody suggested to Adm. Kimmel on 12-6-41 that the Japanese navy could sneak within a couple of hundred miles of his base and, using only aircraft, sink almost his entire fleet, he would have thought that “unlikely”, too.  There was much criticism of the government after 9-11 for failing to “connect the dots”.  What if somebody at the FBI HAD connected the dots, and had arrested one of the terrorists?  They were planning to kill tens of thousands of Americans.  Should we just have hoped that some enterprising FBI agent, knowing that he would probably go to prison for it, should have worked over the suspect to get him to talk?


            From what I’ve read about Grant, Sherman, and the March to the Sea, they determined that chasing Johnston’s army around the southeast would prolong a war that was killing or maiming thousands of men every month.  However, if they could break the will of the Southern people by making them feel “the hard hand of war” (I believe this was Sherman’s phrase), then perhaps they could end the war soon without even bringing Johnston to battle… which they did.  Similar thinking motivated the decision to use the A-bomb in 1945.

  • My biggest problem with the Obama Administration releasing these memos is very simple – it is in violation of the CIA Act of 1947.  Section VI of the Act provides security for the members of the CIA and also the security for their methodologies.  There is no provision within the act for exceptions by the executive or any other agency or agent to divulge information such as these memos.

    As far as specific acts being considered torture, you might want to inform DOD not to use waterboarding on students going through Survival Training – it being torture and all.  God forbid we should follow that road to ruin.

  • Was there any real purpose served by publishing these memos other than allowing  Obama et al.  to feel morally superior and  to beat up on Bush again?

  • I still maintain that half the stuff that people call “torture” is also called “motherhood”.  For the last 11 years I’ve been held in a building where I have been placed into “stress positions” for extended periods of time, subjected to repeated loud noises even after I beg for them to stop, and deprived of sleep.  I’ve had boys’ briefs placed on my head, and had unwanted touches in my private areas.  I’ve been urinated, defecated, and vomited on numerous times, then made to clean up the mess.  I’ve been interrogated with constant “Why?” questions and subjected to non-stop “knock knock” jokes that make no sense.  Occasionally I’ve been allowed out of the building to go to the store, but never without one of my captors with me.  If I ever ran away from my captors, the police would  hunt me down (for child neglect).  Physical injuries? I’ve been bruised and bloodied.  One of my captors knocked my tooth loose.

    I also “waterboarded” one of my children.  (For the record, it was an accident; he wouldn’t keep his head bent forward and turned to the side while I was attempting to irrigate his nasal passages, and he struck at the vessel in which the saline solution was held.)  And when one of my kids poured salt down the other’s throat, I poured salt down her throat (under controlled conditions) so she’d know what she did to her brother and understand why it was an overreaction to what he did to her.  Clearly, stern lectures on the topic of just retribution were not working as a disciplinary tool, and she was too old for spanking to be effective.  This approach worked– she never did anything that drastic to her brother again.

    Is torture immoral? I dunno, is family life?

    • Oh, great. Another guilt trip. Thanks a lot. On the other hand, I guess you would call it a just, if only partial,  retribution

  • I know that the U.S. was never seriously committed to “torture” in the war on terror, and did so only with reluctance and a fear that terrorism was threat enough to justify harsh interrogation, because no one from the government came and recruited me to handle it.

    I’m going to say this once again: On September 11, 2001 my wife was in her office on the 74th floor of the Empire State Building when the planes hit the World Trade towers. She was right in the bullseye of the next logical target in the City.

    Now, when I ask myself what I would do to get whatever information I needed to stop an attack like that, what do you think my answer is going to be?

  • “But we live in the real world where such self imposed limitations might produce a disaster in which many millions die.”

    Ah! you’ve hit on the central point of the whole debate (albeit one rarely discussed openly)  It’s not just a rational issue, but also an issue related to how one sees torture as fitting into their moral code, and moral codes are not always (or even often) based on rational thinking.  Personally, Torture is always against my moral code, even if that means myself or someone I love has to die as a result.  I know thats not “rational” in any conventional sense, but it’s a deep personal feeling that I have nonetheless.

    • “Torture is always against my moral code, even if that means myself or someone I love has to die as a result.”

      Well, for the sake of that someone you love, you surely would want to die in his or her place, for your deeply held feelings. Right?

    • I feel the same way about those who, whether they realize it or not, by their actions indicate they think “war” is worse than a “genocide”. (A genocide is a war where one side is not armed.) This is, of course, not because they are thinking, but because they don’t want to have to think; a genocide is quieter, therefore, not as bad.

      Declaring loudly that “Torture is always wrong!” is not morality. It is preening and feeling good about yourself, even if it means thousands, millions, or billions die for you to feel good. It’s a big step, but to weigh Torture in the balance against Genocide and declare that torturing is wrong, even if it would prevent a genocide, is evil.

      People often object that these are hypothetical… and yes, in this context, they are. But the real question is, what would you do if they weren’t hypothetical? Because nobody is talking about torturing anybody because they delivered a bad pizza. We will all be happiest if the issue never comes up, but if your moral sense is so stunted that you’d rather condemn millions to death than hurt the person who wishes to murder those millions, you have no place lecturing me about my morality.

      Shut up and multiply.

    • “Personally, Torture is always against my moral code, even if that means myself or someone I love has to die as a result.”

      I doubt you’ve ever had to put ‘always‘ to the test.

    • flakPersonally, Torture is always against my moral code, even if that means myself or someone I love has to die as a result.

      OK.  I accept that.  I think that, like pacifism, it is a foolish and ultimately self-destructive attitude, but I can accept that some people really adhere to such a philosophy.

      Can we explore this a bit further?  You’ve written that you’re willing to die or even sacrifice a loved one rather than see a suspect tortured to prevent the crime.  Would you sacrifice somebody else?  How many people would you sacrifice in the interests of upholding your morality?  10?  100?  1 million?

      May I also ask the source of your beliefs?  Religious?  Non-religious but moral?  Some sort of intellectual argument?

  • “Well, for the sake of that someone you love, you surely would want to die in his or her place, for your deeply held feelings. Right?”

    If I had the opportunity, I would.  I would assume most people say the same.

  • Even if torture is illegal,  if the stakes are high enough someone will break the law and perform torture. The law is designed to make sure its truly, truly necessary in some respects.

    You may run a red light to get to the hospital. You will not do so to get a pack of smokes.

  • I think the problem with the entire post is that it assumes <i>a priori</i> that every single person detained by the US is guilty.  Even if you have no problem with torturing those who would actually harm the United States, surely you have a problem with torturing innocent people.  This is not merely hypothetical.  After the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Richard Jewell was considered by the government to be a suspect.  Since then, the government has admitted he was in no way involved, and is completely innocent.  Would it have been ok with you if the government had brutally tortured him before figuring out that, in fact, he was innocent? 
    Furthermore, the logic you use, especially the part about your family, applies just as well to violent criminals as to terrorists.  In fact, moreso, because a member of your family is vastly more likely to be killed, raped, assaulted, etc. by an ordinary American criminal than they are likely to be victims of a terrorist attack.  So should we simply throw out the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” and just allow the police to torture anyone who they have reason to suspect might have committed a violent crime?  You might actually be able to lower the overall crime rate this way, by just throwing everyone who is probably guilty in jail, and torturing them until they confess to something.  But the price of cleaning up the streets this way is the imposition of complete totalitarianism.  Freedom isn’t free doesn’t just apply to fighting on foreign battlefields.  It means that, as the Founding Fathers themselves believed, it is better to see 100 guilty men go free, than a single innocent man be thrown in prison.
    Now none of this addresses whether or not what the US government did was actually torture.  I think that much of it was not.  I am simply addressing Michael’s argument that, basically, any torture is ok, as long as it is used on those our government suspects are probably deserving of it.

  • Hmmm, trying to use HTML there was a poor choice on my part.

    • There are several questions you need to answer before you ever get to the need to attempt aggressive interrogation techniques.

      1.  Does this person have valuable information?
      2.  Does this information have a time limit?  Information becomes stale with age.
      3.  Does this information carry a risk to others?  By risk I mean harm to others.

      The assumption among many in the US is that all detainees go through some level of aggressive interrogation.  They do not.  If any of the three above questions end with a “No” answer, then there is no need to get nasty with the subject.  Normal interrogation techniques will work just as well.  That is why so few persons have been subjected to the types of handling that Khalid Sheik Mohammed went through.  You have to have the imperatives of extremely important information, on a short timetable that could result in death do you ever go to any extreme.  So the Richard Jewel example is not a good one unless the FBI determined that Jewel had information that others were in harm’s way.

      • I understand your point, but it does not negate my point.  The vast majority of QandO posters, and commenters, seem to agree that the government screws up quite a few of the things it tries to do.  Posts about the excesses of law enforcement (the Foley case, for example) are fairly common here.  I don’t understand why people who are more than willing to accept that the government is quite fallible, suddenly have absolute trust the government will never torture an innocent person.

        Furthermore, my argument about domestic criminals still stands in many cases.  If a person is believed to be a possible co-consipirator in a series of armed bank robberies which are ongoing, or a known associate of a serial rapist or serial killer who remains on the loose, or has possible connections to mafia or drug cartel hitmen, all three of your conditions might be met by quite a few people, in the governments opinion.  At the same time, some of those people would undoubtedly be innocent.  There is no way to know beforehand who is innocent and who is not.  If there was, there would be no point in even having judges and juries.

        Michael is comfortable with this because it only involves people picked up on foreign battlefields, at least for now.  You can be absolutely certain that if we allow this to continue, at some point in the future, American citizens will be picked up on American soil, and subjected to the same techniques.  And not just domestic terrorists either.  To believe otherwise is just naive, based on the demonstrated willingness of the US government to lie when convenient.  In fact, according to the recently released DHS report and other similar documents, “right-wing extremists” are pretty much the same as terrorists anyway.

  • I hate this discussion, because every time we come around to it, I realize I’m NOT the Lone Ranger and I WOULD justify torture if I thought I could save the lives of my fellow countrymen in doing so.

    And realistically, it’s something I’d NEVER want them to know I’d done.

  • I think you’ve all missed the point of releasing these memos.

    The release of the memos is a pre-emptive ass covering designed to shield the Administration when the inevitable day comes and they use the same techniques:  al la ‘we’re only doing what the Bush Administration did.”

    • “we’re only doing what the Bush Administration did.”
      And again – that  will be as much rationalization as the rationalization of using torture to gain information for a good cause.

      “Obama” need not continue anything that ” Bush” did.  His party controls Congress and the White House.
      Regardless of what BUSH used to do, anything Obama and the administration choose to do now is completely and totally on them, their choice to continue. 

      I assume we’re not wasting our time torturing every turbaned grunt we get hold of and that we reserve it for people who we think might have highly useful information that is highly critical. 

      Look at SShiell’s list and remember that’s the criteria.  

      We can talk about innocents, but I doubt you’re seeing ANY cases like the movie “Rendition”, and the fact that the current administration is continuing the practices tells you they think so too.
      The rest is gedankenexperiment.

      Having a moral code is a bitch isn’t it?

  • In retrospect – “we’re only doing what the Bush Administration did.” is right up there with the famous and exceedingly successful Nuremberg defense. 

    “We were only following orders”.

  • “I sat in that swank hotel drinking tea with a much decorated, battle-hardened Sri Lankan army officer charged with fighting the LTTE and protecting the lives of Colombo’s citizens. I cannot use his real name, so I will call him Thomas. However, I had been told before our meeting, by the mutual friend—a former Sri Lankan intelligence officer who had also long fought the LTTE—who introduced us (and was present at our meeting), that Thomas had another name, one better known to his friends and enemies alike: Terminator. My friend explained how Thomas had acquired his sobriquet; it actually owed less to Arnold Schwarzenegger than to the merciless way in which he discharged his duties as an intelligence officer. This became clear to me during our conversation. “By going through the process of laws,” Thomas patiently explained, as a parent or a teacher might speak to a bright yet uncomprehending child, “you cannot fight terrorism.” Terrorism, he believed, could be fought only by thoroughly “terrorizing” the terrorists—that is, inflicting on them the same pain that they inflict on the innocent. Thomas had little confidence that I understood what he was saying. I was an academic, he said, with no actual experience of the life-and-death choices and the immense responsibility borne by those charged with protecting society from attack. Accordingly, he would give me an example of the split-second decisions he was called on to make. At the time, Colombo was on “code red” emergency status, because of intelligence that the LTTE was planning to embark on a campaign of bombing public gathering places and other civilian targets. Thomas’s unit had apprehended three terrorists who, it suspected, had recently planted somewhere in the city a bomb that was then ticking away, the minutes counting down to catastrophe. The three men were brought before Thomas. He asked them where the bomb was. The terrorists—highly dedicated and steeled to resist interrogation—remained silent. Thomas asked the question again, advising them that if they did not tell him what he wanted to know, he would kill them. They were unmoved. So Thomas took his pistol from his gun belt, pointed it at the forehead of one of them, and shot him dead. The other two, he said, talked immediately; the bomb, which had been placed in a crowded railway station and set to explode during the evening rush hour, was found and defused, and countless lives were saved. On other occasions, Thomas said, similarly recalcitrant terrorists were brought before him. It was not surprising, he said, that they initially refused to talk; they were schooled to withstand harsh questioning and coercive pressure. No matter: a few drops of gasoline flicked into a plastic bag that is then placed over a terrorist’s head and cinched tight around his neck with a web belt very quickly prompts a full explanation of the details of any planned attack.”

  • Is that torture? Seems more like an execution that scared the other guys into talking.

    • I’d say it was murder, not execution, which is defined as being “[put] to death as a legal penalty”. Also should be lesson-one of why we don’t take interrogation and counterterrorism lessons from tinpot socialist states in the third world.

      Kind of makes one wonder how many “terrorists” have gotten the same treatment. Note also, that this anecdote was told by the “interrogator”. Kind of puts the method’s efficacy in some question…

  • This is the Lawyered-up Propaganda produced for mass consumption.

    The REAL memos are leaking out all over the place ~

    Thank you whistle blowers!