Friday, November 18, 2005

Torture and utilitarianism

The Wichita Eagle makes a fairly common argument: Listen to the pros: Torture doesn’t work:
[A] Knight Ridder article last week showed that, moral objections aside, many CIA field agents and interrogation experts oppose torture for a practical reason -- it doesn’t work. Tortured and mistreated prisoners simply give false information, and they become even more committed enemies. More useful information is usually gained by giving prisoners positive rewards.
Hell, they could have just asked the Army Field Manual:
Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, 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. However, the use of force is not to be confused with psychological ploys, verbal trickery, or other nonviolent and noncoercive ruses used by the interrogator in questioning hesitant or uncooperative sources.
But this is not a great argument. Am I to believe that the Wichita Eagle would be alright with torture if it worked? That we'd all cast our morality aside in favor of functionality?

If standing against torture isn't something deeply ingrained in the fabric of America, I don't know what could be. You can't speak freely with electrodes hooked up to your nuts.

The argument about whether torture works is a way of avoiding the real issue by hiding behind semi-scientific arguments. Yes, the ineffectiveness of torture makes the Vice-President's enthusiasm for it even more disturbing, but it isn't the real argument. It's like arguing about whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent. Maybe, maybe not (I for one am not convinced), but no opponents would change their minds if it turned out to work, and no supporters would come out against it if it could be shown not to deter crime.

As with the death penalty, this is a moral argument, and that's where the discussion should be focussed. Do we want America to join the list of nations known for their propensity for torture (that list would include Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Hussein's Iraq, Pinochet's Chile, Castro's Cuba and a long list of other nations and leaders we don't like).

As people have been pointing out for a while, the techniques being applied in Gitmo, Iraq and elsewhere were drawn from the SERE training our soldiers go through, techniques the trainers use so that soldiers know what to expect if they get captured in North Korea, or if they fell into Soviet hands back in the day. The techniques were derived from Soviet methods of extracting propaganda confessions. Is that really who our nation should be emulating?

This is a serious question, and there's nothing to be gained by circumventing it for a discussion of torture's practicality. Like many people, I think torture is un-American in any form, whether it works or not. Let's take on the real issues.