Re: Some thoughts on Applebaum's "The torture myth"


I am part of a culture that uses torture. It is something we do. We used to not do it, but we changed our minds and now we do. I am pretty sure someone planted an atomic bomb in a major american city. This expains why we use torture.

Posted by: joe o | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 12:59 PM
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I am with Fontana on this: it would be a wonderful world indeed if horrific practices, in addition to being immoral, were also ineffective. Do we have reason to think we live in such a wonderful world?

Well, Applebaum quotes two interrogators who say yes. Heather MacDonald (as I'm sure you've all seen), quotes interrogators who suggest the answer is no.

Did the stress techniques work? Yes. "The harsher methods we used . . . the better information we got and the sooner we got it," writes Mackey, who emphasizes that the methods never contravened the conventions or crossed over into torture.

And, as Fontana says, it makes basic sense. As Mr. White says:

"If you wanna know something and he won't tell you, cut off one of his fingers. The little one. Then tell him his thumb's next. After that he'll tell you if he wears ladies underwear."

I hope we can all agree that cutting off prisoner's fingers should not be US policy. But did anyone out there watch this scene and think "bosh, how implausible, you'll never get a store manager to talk like that"? Or did you all gulp and look down at your hands? I know which one I did.

Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 1:52 PM
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I think we're running together different levels of "effectiveness" (and I do mean we; including my post about the Applebaum column). As I've mentioned perhaps too often, when I was in Iran, I talked to people who had been in prison and had been tortured. It's a plain fact that people will give up true information, recant, sign things, etc., when they're tortured. Not all will, but a hell of a lot more than 10% will. In that sense of "effective"--get people to tell you things--torture is effective.

But, as you recognize, just having the subject say something doesn't do us any good absent some sort of verification. And in the case of international terrorism, verification isn't of the Law & Order go to the bar and ask if anyone saw him there variety. It requires a system of communication between interrogators, a system of independent information gathering, a system of information analysis, and lots of guesswork. These things require resources and time. Consequently, it matters a lot just how much noise there is in your signal, because noise can overwhelm the system. Insofar as the veterans believe that torture increases the noise/signal ratio, that's a much more serious objection than "torture only works x percent of the time." So, in this sense of "effective"--is a net boon in the war against terror--it still seems (and still with considerations of blowback and morality aside) that there's a good case that torture is not effective.

As to why people are keen to torture, I think you're right. People aren't willing to be constrained in fighting an enemy that doesn't seem to recognize constraints. I don't think my explanation is untrue, but it describes just a slice of people's motivation, or just the peculiar fervor of people who advocate (and not just acquiesce to the use of) torture.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 2:29 PM
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I really shouldn't say this but I really should.

What do you mean, we should we use pictures of women with 80s hair as a method of torture? Wanna think about this one, FL?

Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 3:02 PM
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Hey, bpd, do I detect a hint of defensiveness? I'd always envisioned you with more of a spiky new wave cut than those blow-dried gnd's.

You didn't used to live next door to chuck, now did you?

Posted by: cw | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 3:15 PM
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Not defensive; offensive.

(And yes, I was much more about the new wave, mais oui.)

Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 3:24 PM
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From Slate a few days ago:

"Other alleged tactics include giving prisoners forced enemas, blasting them with rap and heavy metal, and making them listen to a looped tape of the Meow Mix cat food jingle for hours on end. (How long could you take it? Click here.)"

Posted by: aj | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 3:46 PM
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Ogged, one helpful result of this exchange is what it reveals about the contingency of torture's helpfulness. Whether or not a certain form of torture works (even as an information-gathering technique) will depend not only on deep facts about human psychology, but on facts on the ground (the intelligence infrastructure, the ready means of verification) as well. That strikes me as interesting.

Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 5:43 PM
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That is interesting, and not much mentioned, now that you mention it.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 01-12-05 5:49 PM
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As Sayyid Qutb's case shows, we can't know where these seeds are sown.

Are you referring to Qutb's study in the United States? Maybe we're not talking about the same Qutb, but there's a big difference between the unintended consequences of the culture of a geographic region (wasn't he living in Denver?) and the unintended consequences of a policy or method.

Posted by: Kriston | Link to this comment | 01-13-05 7:47 AM
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I was thinking of his experiences in Egyptian prisons.

Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 01-13-05 8:00 AM
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I see. Denver, Egyptian prisons, same neighborhood.

Posted by: Kriston | Link to this comment | 01-13-05 9:13 AM
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ogged's comment #3 is exactly right. In philosophy 101, we were told that knowledge is 'justified true belief'. The tortured may be telling truth, but until there is some justification there is no knowledge.

I worked in military intelligence for several years, and it's well known that torture does not work. It's fine for revenge and sadism, but as an intelligence-gathering tool it is practically useless.

Posted by: | Link to this comment | 01-13-05 3:11 PM
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Hooray! I agree completely, #13 ;)

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 01-13-05 3:17 PM
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