Thursday, November 04, 2010

Martin Robbins: Does torture work?

Does torture work?: Debates about the ethics of torture are all very well, but does it even work in the first place?
by Martin Robbins
U.K. Guardian

I'm a pragmatic humanist , and so I don't really believe in absolutes when it comes to morals. Could I support the use of torture in some contrived situation? Yes, definitely, and it would be irrational to say otherwise. If mutilating John Doe's balls is going to stop a nuclear bomb going off in my favourite London pub then hand me the curling tongs.

But what if it doesn't work? Much of the discussion about torture concentrates on the moral and ethical dilemmas involved, but in fact these arguments and make-believe situations are irrelevant if torture doesn't work in the first place. If those who advocate it can't prove that it works, then they have already lost the debate.

The strongest argument in favour of torture is the so called 'ticking bomb' scenario, re-imagined with the help of John Doe's toasty testicles above. Alan Dershowitz gave a good summary of it in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2001:

Everybody says they're opposed to torture. But everyone would do it personally if they knew it could save the life of a kidnapped child who had only two hours of oxygen left before death. And it would be the right thing to do.

It's a compelling argument, until you start to look at the assumptions that you have to make to accept it. This argument assumes that you have the right person in custody, it assumes that this person actually has the information you need, it assumes that there isn't a better way of getting hold of the evidence, and above all it assumes that torture is an effective way of getting that information.

One of the interesting features of the torture debate is that many in the military and intelligence communities seem decidedly unconviced about the effectiveness of torture. Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent with considerable experience interrogating al-Qaeda operatives, pointed out in Time that:

When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them. That means the information you're getting is useless.

He isn't alone in this assessment – a number of former intelligence people have expressed similar views, and his words are echoed by the US Army Training Manual's section on interrogation, which suggests that:

…the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.

The situation is further clouded by the fact that members of the George W. Bush administration made claims for the effectiveness of torture that have later been proven to be untrue. One such claim was that the water-boarding (simulated drowning) of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed produced vital information that allowed them to break up a plot to attack the Liberty Tower in Los Angeles in 2002. Slight problem - in 2002 Shaikh Mohammed was busy evading capture in Pakistan.

But enough anecdotes, let's look at the science. Why wouldn't torture be effective? Actually there are many reasons. Let's assume that we have the right guy, and that he does in fact know the information that we need. All we need to do is beat it out of him, right?

Well, no. Suppose I start beating you around the head, demanding that you tell me that Justin Bieber is in fact a supremely talented artist. Eventually, although it may take several days of torture to get there, you'll tell me what I want to hear, but that doesn't make it true.

The second major problem is that human memory just isn't reliable. Take a bunch of witnesses from any major news event: a bombing, 9/11, a car crash, wherever. The more people you interview, the more different stories you'll get, because our recall of past events isn't always very accurate. On top of that, there is a vast body of scientific literature telling us that one way to make a person's memory even less reliable is to deprive them of sleep, or put them under great stress, or otherwise confuse them. You know, like you do with torture.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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