Thursday, April 18, 2019

Does Torture Work?

The most important issue about torture remains the moral issue of the deliberate infliction of pain, the suffering that results, the insult to dignity, and the demoralization and depravity that is almost always associated with this enterprise where it is legalized or not. — Jeremy Waldron 

Apologists often assume that torture works, and all that is left is the moral [and/or legal] justification. If torture does not work, then their apology is irrelevant. Deciding whether one ought or ought not to drive a car is a pointless debate [or decision] if the car has no gas. — Darius Rejali 

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a treaty the United States has ratified, making it U.S. law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, contains an absolute ban on torture: ‘No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.’ The prohibition of torture is so fundamental it is considered jus cogens, a peremptory norm of international law binding on all countries even if they have not ratified the Torture Convention.—Marjorie Cohn from her Introduction to the volume she edited, The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse (New York University Press, 2011) 

Alas, at least 48% of Americans say there are some circumstances under which the use of “enhanced interrogation” (a euphemism for torture) is acceptable in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.* And not surprisingly, given the many unethical (e.g., racist, misogynist, inhumane), bizarre, paranoid, ill-considered, and delusional beliefs and fantasies (and phantasies) he holds, President Trump has proclaimed torture to be “effective” (his reticence on this topic of late may reflect one of the few occasions in which he has listened to and followed legal advice). His commitment to the Guantánamo Bay detention camp (last year he signed an executive order to keep the prison camp open indefinitely) suggests his views on torture have not changed. 

As for intellectuals (‘pseudo-‘ and otherwise) and some philosophers, the endeavor to morally justify or rationalize torture is often crystallized in arguments based on hypothetical “ticking-time bomb” scenarios, “thought-experiments” which share the irreality, unreality, or surreality of the ethicist’s beloved “trolley problem” (there are several versions of the trolley problem which need not concern us). I concede that some philosophical benefit may result from its examination, albeit largely in the form of by-product effects through clarifying this or that concept, moral intuition or topic in ethics, but these might equally and more directly—if not timely fashion—be obtained by dealing with realistic or real-world ethical issues, problems and dilemmas. When it comes to attempts to morally justify torture, however, I see little or no benefit in focusing on “ticking-time bomb” scenarios because they only serve to detract from the urgency of the principal moral arguments and relevant empirical evidence (such as can be attained or reasonably inferred). 

“The past two millennia are rich with examples that confirm, time and again, Ulpian’s dictum from the third century A.D.: the strong can resist torture and the weak will say anything to end their pain.” — Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan Books, 2006). 

If torture, on occasion, has been found to be “effective,” it represents an exception to the general rule, and not a predictable (hence not reliable) one at that: 

“ … [T]hree different sources of error … systematically and unavoidably corrupt information gathered through torture. These are deceptive, but actionable information given by uncooperative or innocent prisoners; the well-documented weakness of most interrogators for spotting deception; and mistaken, but high-confidence, information offered by cooperative prisoners after torture. [….] For harvesting information, organized torture yields poor information, sweeps up many innocents, degrades organizational capabilities, and destroys interrogators. Limited time during battle or emergency intensifies all these problems.” (Darius Rajali) 

* Here, it is worth noting with Rejali in his indispensable tome, Torture and Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2007), that belief in the interrogative value (i.e., ‘efficacy’) of torture and the corresponding moral and legal attempts to justify its use of torture in democratic legal regimes is not confined to anti-terrorism efforts: “One might think that the demand for torture in democracies arises mainly during national emergencies. It is easy to imagine that, in war or in the face of terrorism, an imminent threat might lead some to endorse torture and many others to turn a blind eye. This would explain why some democracies turned to torture, for instance the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, or the Israelis on the West Bank, It would not explain many cases where analysts have documented systematic torture in democracies when an objective or perceived national threat was absent. These cases include such places as Japan, Brazil, the Russian Federation, democratic South Africa, and some American cities, notably Chicago and New York.”

Thus, and relatedly, there are three principal reasons or purposes for torture in democracies: “to intimidate, to coerce false confessions, and to gather accurate security information.” As Rejali explains, coercive interrogation techniques (another euphemism for torture) can often work or be effective if the overarching aim is to intimidate or generate false confessions. However, it is generally, and as we read above, wrongly assumed in the war on terror that torture can “generate true and reliable intelligence, intelligence that is qualitatively superior to [that obtained by] standard police techniques.” 

Please see this bibliography: Torture: moral, legal, and political dimensions

Addendum: It appears my “claims and citations are impotent,” if only because they are “without empirical foundations.”


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