14 September, 2009

One more point on torture

In Sullivan' essay mentioned below, he describes the torture-through-prolonged-sleep-deprivation of Mohammed al-Qahtani this way:

During Qahtani’s interrogations, his refusal to drink and many days of sleep deprivation brought his heartbeat down to dangerously low levels; but even after he was urgently hospitalized for a day for dehydration to prevent his death, sleep deprivation continued—and was continuously used even as he physically deteriorated. An early FBI review of the interrogation of Qahtani found that the cumulative treatment led him to exhibit “behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reportedly hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).” If you believe “extreme psychological trauma” is the same as “severe mental suffering,” then [Bush] ordered the prolonged and brutal torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani.

Now, there are several arguments to be made against torture, which I would think fall into three main categories: legal, moral, and practical. The first is pretty straightforward: does this kind of treatment of prisoners violate our domestic laws and international obligations? The answer is straightforward as well: yes, clearly.

The moral argument is less clear-cut, but anyone wanting to argue that treating a human being in the above fashion is ethically despicable probably has a pretty good case. One of the moral foundations of Western civilization is supposed to be respect for the integrity of human persons, no matter how guilty, and I can't think of an act that more thoroughly debases the very self of a person than does torture.

But what strikes me about the above passage is the practicality element. The argument that torture is not practical has two versions that I see: first, that torture produces a certain amount of quality intelligence that could not be attained through traditional means, but that benefit is outweighed by the deleterious effects of that torture on our credibility and soft power; second, that torture actually produces no intelligence that could not be otherwise obtained and in many cases actually produces lower quality intelligence through false confessions and general incoherence.

The passage above really does violence to the first version, the idea that torture does produce anything of value. By the end of the interrogation, al-Qahtani is talking to non-existent people, hearing voices, and otherwise hallucinating. What kind of intelligence does any one seriously expect a man in that state to provide? Who can read that and seriously think that any tiny needle of true and coherent information that might emerge from that mess would be worth the effort required to dig through the haystack of delerious ramblings of a man driven mad? No wonder the professionals are dismissive.


Cassady said...

You know, I agree with you on pretty much every single point in both of these posts.

Most interesting to me is the practicality arguement, because I think it ultimately has the best chance of providing the effective basis for change and ultimate banning of all sorts of nasty mistreatments of our fellow-men.

I say that for a few reasons. First, laws can be changed, and as improbable as it is, it's not impossible for torture--in some bizarro world no sane person would ever care to visit--to be legalized in our's and other's countries. Second, discussions of morality, even when people largely agree on the most basic principles, seemingly without fail turn into heated arguments, which in turn metamorph into stalemates. Besides, there are a goodly number of what I would term "inconsiderate pricks" out there who honestly believe and say out loud, "I don't care what they have to do to those dirty Arabs to keep my country safe. Kill 'em all for all I care." This was a direct quote from an otherwise harmless old man in a restaurant in my district.

The practicality argument is viable, I feel, because it has the least emotional value for people, and so will be better able to convince them on the merits of proof. Physical proof of morality is problematic. Physical proof of effectiveness speaks pretty loudly. So, this puts us (as the anti-torture crowd) in the somewhat distasteful but perhaps powerful position of being able to say to these kooks, "look, I'll grant you that interrogation is necessary to protect our country, but we have proof that certain tactics are ineffective and counter-productive." When, all the while, our true motive may be that morally, legally, and otherwise, we believe torture is wrong.

Elliot said...

"in some bizarro world no sane person would ever care to visit"

That is, this current one. The legal precedent currently being set is that those who authorized, designed, and implemented a comprehensive torture program face no legal jeopardy. And the low level folks being investigated by Holder are only those who went beyond even what that torture program authorized.

"I don't care what they have to do to those dirty Arabs to keep my country safe."

Jose Padilla is a US citizen.

I too feel that the practicality element is very important, especially since the evidence is that torture is counter-productive and makes us less safe - that is, I'm not just making that argument because the moral one is too hard. It pisses me off that the use of these techniques made it harder for us to capture, kill or disrupt people bent on our mass murder. That too is a moral argument, in its way.

Elliot said...

I should also say that I don't think its a good idea to abandon the moral argument altogether. Staking everything to a claim of practicality could be very messy and indecisive as well; you can produce a study or a report to prove almost anything and it will be reported credulously by the media. I think a truly and widely persuasive attack on torture needs an element of line-in-the-sand, this-is-not-who-we-are moral clarity as well as the practical element.

Cassady said...

I agree with you about not leaving it to practicality. I'm just saying that I think that line of attack--as a frontice piece to the whole concerted movement--has a good chance of proving successful.

And oh, my bad. I was assuming we live in a world where the guilty of all levels will eventually be punished. Oops.