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Does torture work? Depends what you are trying to do. April 27, 2009

Posted by Ian Duckles in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Political Philosophy.

As the kerfuffle surrounding the release of the torture memos moves into the red herring phase of the media debate, the question about whether to prosecute or not has subtly (though intentionally) been shifted to the irrelevant question of whether or not torture works. This question is a red herring because the efficacy of torture is irrelevant to the question of its morality. In addition, all the relevant laws surrounding torture are quite explicit in their statements that torture is always wrong no matter why it is pursued or what effects it has. Article two of Part I of the UN Convention Against Torture is very clear on this point (emphasis added):

  1. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
  2. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Despite this, I am going to bite and take up the question of whether or not torture works. To answer this question, we need to have a sense of what the goals of torturing people were. In the popular imagination, torture is a technique we break out for the “ticking time-bomb.” In this scenario, we have a terrorist in custody and only he knows the location of a bomb that will destroy something important in a short period of time. Thus, we torture one individual to save the lives of many. This scenario makes for great TV, but its connection to reality is tenuous at best. More importantly, it has never made much sense to me to think that an individual who comes from a group capable of flying a plane-load of people into a crowded office building would not be able to hold out until the ticking bomb blew up. Regardless of these concerns, it is important to note that there is no evidence whatsoever of any US official torturing an individual under these circumstances (I am inclined to think that even under these limited circumstances torture is still wrong, but that is a separate argument). In fact, the most plausible position is that torture was instigated out of a desire on the part of the Bush Administration to find an Iraq/Al-queda link that could not be uncovered through traditional means.

Much of the evidence for the above claim is nicely detailed in this important piece by NYTimes columnist Frank Rich. He summarizes this point as follows:

In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.

So, the key motivation of the Bush Administration for engaging in torture was to get individuals to falsely confess to an Iraq/Al-queda link, and these confessions were then used to convince the American people (and people in other countries) to support an invasion of Iraq. There is a degree of irony here insofar as the torture techniques employed by US torturers were reverse-engineered from the SERE training given to US military. This training were developed to expose and prepare US troops for the sorts of torture that they had encountered in the Korean and Vietnam War; torture that had been designed to get US soldiers to make false confessions and denounce the US government.

So, finally we are in a position to answer the question of whether torture works. The answer is quite simple. If your goal is to elicit false confessions, torture is extremely effective (probably the most effective method). However, if your goal is to get at the truth, torture is counter-productive since one has to spend additional time figuring out which of the detainee’s statements are truthful and which are merely attempts to tell the torturer what he or she wants to hear.

UPDATE: Yesterday (Wednesday, April 29), the NPR show Fresh Air conducted an interview with Scott Shane on exactly the matters I discuss in the post. The interview is quite good, but in it Shane makes some compelling arguments that would seem to refute some of the conclusions I draw above. You can listen to the interview here. In particular, Shane suggests that the government was not intending to elicit false confessions when they initiated the torture regime. Given what Shane says, I am inclined to agree with him here, but I still think much of what I said above is still valid in that one of the major reasons for using torture was to find evidence of an Iraq/Al-queda link. Shane also agrees with this timeline of events, he just sees less malicious intent on the part of the Bush administration than I do.



1. Paul Moloney - April 28, 2009

If torture is a form of cruelty and cruelty is an injustice then torture is unreasonable because when we are unjust to someone we are being unreasonable to them. Something “working” is not the same as something being helpful or beneficial. Such a working is a deficiency in pragmatic philosophy. There is a great deal of difference between William James being pragmatic and Hitler being pragmatic.
Also, as Ian pointed out, the working of torture does not even seem to work in regards to its purpose, so I assume that torture is purposeless. Torture has not helped anyone nor has it benefited anyone.

Ian Duckles - April 28, 2009

I think it is important to stress, as I noted in my post, that torture does help some people, namely those people who are trying to elicit false confessions.

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