May 2009

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No Torture. Ever.

By Jonathan Wallace


           Water-boarding, as you probably know by now, is the practice of placing a cloth over someone’s face, then pouring water over it for a short time to make the subject feel like he is drowning.

           Do a Google search on the words “water-boarding effective” and you will go right to the heart of the debate currently raging about whether torture works. The latest paroxysm of punditry on this issue traces back to a comment made in December 2007 by a former CIA employee:

Waterboarding saved lives in the war against al Qaeda but is torture and should not be used, an ex-CIA interrogator said on Tuesday as lawmakers demanded answers about the agency's destruction of videotapes showing the interrogation technique.

Former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou told U.S. news media that suspected al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaida agreed to cooperate after being subjected to the simulated drowning technique for less than a minute by CIA officials in 2002.

       As we now know, due to a classified memo released this month, Abu Zubaida had water poured over his face not once but eighty-three times in 8 to 10 separate sessions.

           A fascinating Wikipedia entry,, goes into detail on the question of whether any useful intelligence whatever was derived from Abu Zubaida’s interrogation. The article cites the Washington Post for March 29, 2009, as follows:

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

           People arguing against the practicality of torture note that it is not a reliable way to get truthful information, as opposed to the lies best calculated to make the torture stop. Lenny Bruce had a routine in which he started out insisting he would never betray his country:

No way I’ll betray my country. No way. Doesn’t matter what you do I’ll never ta…Hey, what are they doing to that guy over there, the guy strapped to the table on his belly? Why are they putting a funnel in his ass. What’s that in that ladle? Hot lead? Hot lead? They’re pouring hot lead in his ass? They’re giving him a hot lead enema? Ask me anything. I’ll tell you anything. I’ll tell you about my mother. I’ll make up secrets.           

           I found that quote in an essay by Bruce Jackson, “Normalizing Torture”, Jackson points out that most torture has not traditionally been committed to get reliable information. It has been carried out to make the victim suffer and die, and for the personal sadistic pleasure of the torturer. In contexts where torture has been used to gain information, the truth of the information wasn’t important. Cops in corrupt departments across America have used torture to clear cases. When you get a confession, it doesn’t much matter if it’s a false one.

           I believe that torture is an ineffective way to get to the truth. I also believe that it does not matter, from a moral standpoint,  whether this is true. In other words, the morality of torture has nothing to do with whether it works or not. For the rest of this essay, I assume that torture is a marvelous method for obtaining truth.

           I have frequently noted how moral and practical discourse tend to get mixed up with one another. A leading laboratory for the observation of mixed and confused discourse is the death penalty debate, where the issue of whether executing prisoners is right or wrong, tends to get mixed up with the question of whether the death penalty is a deterrent, or too expensive.

           We are in this same zone now, where torture is concerned. Prince Talleyrand famously said, after Napoleon ordered the assassination of the Duc d’Enghien, that it was not only a crime, but a mistake. It isn’t written anywhere that every crime is a mistake, or every mistake a crime. Something can be a crime, but be eminently practical and useful to achieve a goal. Pointing a gun at a bank teller tends to be a very effective way to obtain large amounts of money. An argument that conflates morality and practicality would of necessity have to take the line that bank robberies always fail.

             Postulate a very tough terrorist.  She has planted a bomb in a kindergarten somewhere, but we don’t know what kindergarten, or even in which U.S. state. We do know it will go off in forty minutes. As a first measure, we water-board her three or four times, but she inhales the water, apparently trying to drown herself.

           We withdraw to a nearby room and discuss what methods will be more effective against someone who wants to die. If anything will work at all, it will be a technique which induces unbearable, but not fatal pain, or which threatens the life of someone she cares more about than herself.  The following suggestions are made. We now have only thirty minutes left to locate and disarm the bomb.

           Someone who worked for the Chilean secret police during the Pinochet era says that raping her may be a very effective way of getting her to talk.

           A colleague who is a Hezbollah defector suggests that cutting off her fingers one by one would absolutely work in the time we have available.

           A co-worker who participated in the slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda points out that we have her two toddlers in the next room. Perhaps if we kill one of them, she will reveal the location of the bomb to save the other one?

           A consultant from Chechnya objects that it is very inhumane to kill small children. It might be just as effective if we cut off the toddler’s fingers one by one; as a mom, she probably cares more about her child’s digits than her own.

           An ex-Stalinist, very agitated, interrupts: what are we pussy-footing around for? Why don’t we just shoot the whole fam damily, and their next door neighbors and the guy who runs the corner grocery and the postman and all of their first and second cousins from the next town over?

           And so on. My question is, which of these solutions is all right with you, if water-boarding doesn’t work? If none of them are, why is water-boarding all right? If water-boarding is all right, what do we do if it doesn’t work, and a bomb will go off in twenty minutes?

           If water-boarding is acceptable to you, ask yourself what gives us the right to do it, when we prosecuted Japanese officers after World War II for water-boarding American prisoners. We also court-martialed at least one U.S. soldier in Vietnam for water-boarding a suspected Viet Cong prisoner. Have we thrown moral caution to the winds, and we are simply trying to be the winners in the brutal torture contest by proving ourselves the cruelest people on earth? Or do we have a special right to torture where others do not?

           If we have a special right to torture, what is it based on? I can only think of two possibilities. It could be based on the existence of a bomb which will now go off in only fifteen minutes. Or it can be based on the fact that We Are Americans And Therefore Very Special.

           There are some logical flaws in the first argument, that the imminence of the bomb gives us a right to torture. What happens when we find out that the woman we are torturing is innocent? She was suspicious looking, dark skinned and in the wrong place. Suppose it turns out there is no bomb in a kindergarten?

           Even if she is a terrorist and there is a bomb, do our adversaries have the same rights we do, on the same excuse? If Taliban fighters capture a Delta Force soldier, do they have an equivalent right to torture him to discover the time, place and forces deployed for an imminent attack which is likely to kill 30 or 50 civilians? Absolutely not, you say? Why? Because they are Taliban monsters and we’re Americans? OK, we’ve established that the real argument is not the bomb, but American exceptionalism.

           What makes us so damn special? We’re not smarter or prettier than anyone else on earth, nor more religious, or kinder to our neighbors or small animals. We are wealthier than most people on earth. Does that give us a right to cut everyone else’s fingers off? No? Its because we are Americans, you say? What is that quality which makes us Americans? Did God tap us on the shoulder?

           Its because we have…lets see…Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and the framers and the Constitution they wrote and Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fourteenth Amendment... Yes! Its American liberty and our civil rights that makes us superior to Taliban and the terrorist who bombed the kindergarten.

           I think what you just said is that it’s the Bill of Rights which gives us the right to torture. In other words, we can torture people precisely because we reject torture.

           But wait! If we start torturing people, will we still be special, or will we just take our place in the ranks of brutal assholes who dominate world history? Hmmmm…..if we torture, we might lose the right to torture….If we don’t torture people, we keep the moral high ground and can claim we are better. If we have to give up being better in order to defend being better, what’s the point?

           I propose the following rule for the American rulebook. I thought it was already there, but sometimes we have to reaffirm or re-establish the things we forgot.

           Regardless of whether there is a bomb in a kindergarten going to go off in ten minutes, we should never torture people. Ever. Under any circumstances.