The Spectacle Blog

More on Torture

By on 8.21.06 | 2:49PM

I just noticed that Julian Sanchez responded to a post I had last week in which I argued that the revelation that Pakistani authorities may have used torture to expose the British airplane terror plot, if proven true, pokes holes in the argument that torture isn't an effective means to extract information from terrorists. Sanchez says I miss the point:

But the argument was not that genuine terrorists who have useful information will never disclose it under torture. The problem is that people who aren't terrorists, or terrorists who don't know much of importance, will offer up plenty of bogus stuff as well. Since the media don't tend to run a whole lot of stories on every wild goose intelligence analysts chase and every dead end they run into, though, this cost tends to be invisible if you're just following the papers. If torture were the only way to extract the necessary information, it might be worth it in strict cost-benefit terms despite producing a lot of hay for every needle it elicited. But I haven't seen any evidence offered for that thesis, and it doesn't seem to be the conclusion the old hands have come to.   

Firstly, I think that Sanchez is reframing the torture debate that peaked late last year with the passage of the McCain Ammendment. At the time, the debate was between those who thought torture should be outlawed in all circumstances and those who thought it should be allowed in limited cases in which the detainee is a terrorist with knowledge of a impending attack (see Charles Krauthammer's Weekly Standard piece for an example). I can't speak for all conservative bloggers and columnists, but I don't recall many serious conservatives arguing in favor of torturing detainees who "aren't terrorists" or are "terrorists who don't know much of importance." It was within the context of a debate about limiting torture vs. banning torture that proponents of an outright ban argued that torture was not effective.

Secondly, while there may not be articles on "every wild goose intelligence analysts chase and every dead end they run into," I think, in general, there has been a lot of reporting on intelligence failures and on counterterrorists getting bum steers. I think it's only fair to point out that in this case torturing a suspect may have been effective.

But let’s say it’s true that in many instances torture produces unreliable intelligence. In my view of the cost-benefit analysis that Sanchez sets up, it's worth tossing around a lot of hay to expose a needle that represents a terrorist plot that threatens thousands of innocent people. However, he adds the caveat that this may be true only if "torture were the only way to extract the necessary information." I cannot respond to this 1) because Sanchez does not explain what other methods of extracting information he has in mind (I don’t mean this as a jibe because I know blog posts are often written in haste)  and 2) because we have limited information of what actually happened in Pakistan.

As I said in my initial post, the new revelation, even if confirmed to be true, does not change the moral debate over torture. I can totally sympathize with somebody who argues that the U.S. government should never, under any circumstances, sanction the use of torture as a means of interrogation. However, what I do have a problem with is that I think that proponents of an outright ban often create a false choice. It is a choice between a world in which America fights a kinder, gentler war, and remains safe, or a world in which America compromises its values, tortures people, becomes inhumane, and actually puts itself in more danger. Offered those alternatives, I would hope that most people would choose the first option. However, when dealing with an enemy that glorifies death as much as we celebrate life, there's simply no way to win pretty. 

Proponents of an outright ban on torture tend to view the world much like a Laffer-type curve. The Laffer Curve postulates that, at a certain level, raising taxes actually reduces tax revenue. Viewed in terms of the War on Terror, this would mean that if the war is fought too aggressively, at some point there is a backlash in which the Muslim world becomes more inflamed, America loses support among its allies, and you get stuff like bad intelligence. While I believe that America should be conscious of this effect, I don’t think it negates the reality of a tradeoff curve.

Imagine a curve in which on one end America can achieve "total security," but it would entail torturing people indiscriminately, creating a Big Brother state and dropping nuclear bombs across the entire Middle East. At the other end of the curve it can achieve "total civility," but it would entail never attacking terrorists if they hide among civilians, never using torture, and letting the ACLU set our policies for investigating and prosecuting suspected terrorists. There is a very real moral debate to be had about what area of this curve we feel comfortable inhabiting. The revelation coming out of Pakistan does nothing to change this debate. However, some people would have us believe that no such tradeoff exists, that by being more civil we will become more secure. The story from Pakistan, if true, offers incremental evidence of a tradeoff. A person may still argue that torture is immoral, but this story makes it harder to argue that it’s ineffective. I would love to be able to take the moral high ground and deny that a tradeoff exists, but I cannot do so in good conscience. 

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