Monday, June 2, 2014

[OM] Torture

 A few weeks ago torture returned to the spotlight when the Senate and the CIA had a small spat over the fact that the CIA had spied on Senate aides who were to look over torture reports. Some reports were, I'd say luckily, leaked. Nevertheless, though this infighting has died down, I want to take another look at torture. One would think that in this day and age there shouldn't be much of a discussion when it comes to torture, but unfortunately there is. 

Torture is one of the many legacies of the war on terror (continued to this day, though without that name, and on different terms, mainly that torture chambers are replaced by drones).[1] And though it appears that the aforementioned episode has quieted down, it has not done so through consensus, but rather through a need to forget. But given that the basics haven't been brought to light, we cannot walk into the future and assume that a want to torture won't come up again. Indeed, some of the arguments against torture are predicated on the fact that there aren't many attacks (basically assuming that it works). So what happens when attacks increase? [2]
 First, a definition of torture (I'm using an international one, rather than national)
Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT):
“... 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

The setup:
A few months ago, after an handful of interesting chess games with a friend, we discussed possibly watching Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. From everything that I had heard, it was a movie that justified torture. [3]

I said that I didn’t care to see this movie. I was then asked if I was for or against torture. I said I was against it. Why? he asked. I paused. I’d thought on this question many times, and time and time again I'd come to the conclusion that to support such an act would be to go against human nature and to go against what our nation stood for. But it would also be wrong because everything I'd read from a few experts said that it didn’t work.

It doesn’t work I said (I find it interesting that this was my goto explanation).
Is that the only reason: that it doesn't work?
I wasn’t expecting so concise and piercing a question, but there it was. Another pause. Yes, that’s the only reason, I said.

For some reason that felt like a weak reason, this opposition based solely on efficacy (my tormentor/friend was for torture, though I’m sure he wouldn’t phrase it that way, but as something of "a last resort in serious times"). It may be that I’m too much a product of my time and that I cannot truly trust feelings and so I fall back on: "does it work or not?". 

The problem:
In other words, I would be for torture if someone could come up with the evidence that it works. And still that was the only argument I offered. I repeated that it didn’t work, not going into the multiple other variables that go into this reasoning: that it may work on any given person, but if you’re trying to paint a full on picture through intelligence, it ends up being a near-useless, horrific and revenge based way of doing things. 

Sure, if you grab the right guy he might, under torture, tell you everything. But he might embellish. He might add a few things to satisfy his torturer. And if you grab the wrong man, he might tell you what you want to hear. That too will distort your intelligence picture (to say nothing of the long term potential, or lack thereof).

The ones who are tortured, what are you going to do with them? Murder them in cold blood? That might be possible, but are we really trying to walk down the line where we start to mimic the SS or Stalin? Know that once you torture someone and release them (though currently there’s indefinite detention that we seem to be using) into the population, they will not be the same. And to say that they will be extreme, or be most likely to fall into that category is an understatement (the 1984 view that a man becomes docile after torture isn't always the case). Or that their experience will influence others. It is widely known that the torture chambers of Egypt helped create the 9-11 terrorists.

And what of turning the population (the one being targeted, as well as the many other agents who would be against such actions) against oneself? This also plays a part into what we want to be as a nation: the SS or a beacon of freedom. We torture and we’re handing over a recruiting tool to others. I will admit that these last two points are the weakest (or not wholly proven), though even the advocates of torture seem to understand it as they've tried to keep all information about torture under wraps. [4]

Ticking Time Bomb:
And the ticking time bomb scenario? What happens when you have one person in front of you and they (possibly, of course, remember it’s never 100%) know where a nuclear bomb is and they don’t want to help, what do you do? The people who love this scenario love it because they never want you to step back and look at the bigger picture. But let’s put aside the fact that you don’t know if this person knows anything (or that torture will bring out the correct information). Let’s assume you’re 100% certain. So what do you do? The biggest argument is that one person is worth less than a million. So what’s his skin to those others? [5] Of course, one should ask where does this calculation stop? If one is nothing compared to one million, then what of two? Surely this person should be tortured to save two lives?

But, you should know that there needs to be more than the morality of numbers. Remember that you would never run a nation by this moral code alone (usually it ends up being rights and 'fair' laws that rule the day). And let's not forget that this method can also be used against our own soldiers. After all, shouldn’t a pilot who was carpet bombing civilian cities in North Vietnam be tortured to extract as much information to save more lives [6]? This is why holding on to rights works better than a numerical-based morality. Also, think about how we view other nations who use torture. [7]

What is torture, anyways:
Another argument is that what we do/did is not torture but rather something more benign, something befitting the word "civilized". We aren’t pulling off nails or raping etc, what we’re doing would be considered training for many of our soldiers. But at the end of the day pain is pain [8] and reasonable people can agree on the types of torture, even if some are less obviously vile than others. I should note here that stress positions are used in North Korean concentration camps. So too is (long term) isolation. 

Final conclusion:
I’m sure I've not come close to discussing all the angles on this subject—that would take a proper book. And if you have other questions on the matter, or want to point out something that I’m missing, then please do. But I stand by my efficacy argument, whereby torture is not something that works in the short term (for any given individual person it might) and that it tears apart one’s over all intelligence picture, especially as more people are tortured (and you live by the moral calculus of one tortured < 2 lives saved). So my argument can be one of efficacy of the method as well as the morality code of the torturer (allowing them to torture too many with that numbers game, the method never truly working) turning our country into something that it’s not. Better to gain intelligence the other way. Turn a prisoner and send them back etc.

Some of the other arguments seem to fall into "being good/just" and I'm not sure how to properly argue them, though they are strong points that seem to agree with my "gut". Still they seem religious in ways, and I can't agree with that (though I see the weakness of my position here).

Once again, as with all situations (especially when it comes to national security, where many are all too willing to use propaganda for their own purposes) we must see who is  trying to subvert the Constitution. Is it those who hide things from the public eye who we need to watch, not those trying to bring things to light. And with the torture debate, as with many others, it's clear which side doesn't want the facts out.


Some other articles that are related to the subject matter here.
# How to read the news today (relevant because even an article like this must be read with an eye towards history)
# An article about Drone Warfare today.
# An article about the fatwa on Rushdie

Also some books on the matter:
The Interrogator: The Story of Hanns Scharff, Luftwaffe's Master Interrogator
Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity)

It's not hard to note that even all the arguments above come down to issues of a scientific (even when considering morality of a nation that would consider itself a beacon of freedom, of enlightenment) measure of saying one action is better, can be weighed against another. The scientist in me says this is the route to go, and so does the atheist, but what of blind faith in this matter? The former routes would be susceptible to mob behavior, would easily be morphed, distorted with a few fake studies or propaganda. Not hard to see that.

After all, how many false studies would I be able to wade through? At some number things would be distorted. And what about an artistic look at this? That tearing the soul from the flesh to bring truth to light? The ghosts that must impart and soak the ground, the tormentor even, to the bone and never leave, turning an entire nation into torturers. Do I believe this? Do you? Should we?

Hard to say, but as an atheist it would seem that blind faith is indeed the way to move forward, to stay clear of anyone who would love to obfuscate this. Where then is the reason? Follow gut feeling that torture is wrong? Perhaps a model can be created for this.

Well these are merely thoughts, but ones that disturb even I.

Update (Dec2014): And now that report by the Senate has come out. As usual, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of good coherent thought out there (or it's being drowned out by plays on emotion). Will brb and write more.

Update (Jan2015): Didn't write more on the previous matter. I shall.
Well, there has been more information coming out on the torture program, to include information that tells us that it was not helpful. This is what most of us have been saying all along: that it didn't help and only further lowered our standing in the world and allowed certain groups to recruit using this against us.

But that's if this doesn't work. For then our moral quandary is very easy to work out, isn't it (except for the few who would say that anything is better than nothing, or who want some kind of vengeance)? To me, though, this doesn't settle the matter. Because what happens when someone comes along (and charges one of our defense or intelligence agencies something to the order of 180 million for the research) and says it does work 99%, or 100% of the time (there's another philosophical question, would either number matter to you?). Do you think we would refrain? Of course not. I don't see it happening. In fact, if there wasn't a reaction to this torture I doubt there would be any introspection on the matter. People would have gotten rich (make no doubt about that) and they would be fine with the silence.

To this day we torture many people (thousands) by isolation and other methods. This latest kind, then, can only be viewed as a manifestation of the previous, or constant one going on with our own criminals. I'm against that. I'm also against that against those we are currently fighting against. What to do with them now?

And the conversation surrounding the torture report was very short-sighted: protect our nation in terms of preventing attacks or our stature. Is there much else to be considered? There has to be. There must be. We either move towards having a world of laws, or say hello to strife (and yes, that includes the stateless). What this torture scandal (is it even that? no one will be punished for it, definitely no one at the top) shows is that vengeance is hard to overcome. We won't even with a miniscule report. Instead we see the power of those who wield it, and wonder why everyone else sees that violence is their only option.

Update:  A quick picture of pros and cons ala the Bush Admin:

[1] One of these legacies has been a complete kowtowing to national security and its institutions while democratic institutions get short thrift. Indeed that the CIA thought spying on the Senate was something it could get away with seems like a perfect example. The need for oversight is overlooked and we get people trying to hide things (for "our good", of course; it should be noted, as per Chomsky, that people who lie and claim national security care more for their own skins and are merely protecting themselves from their own people) while those trying to shine a light on this fact are somehow anit-American—nevermind the checks and balances that are inherent to our Constitution.

[2] Also, the state of our prison system indicates that levels of torture exist everywhere (especially when isolation is included). So is this merely an example of a national need coming into the international stage?

[3] Now, the director herself had said that she was allowed some artistic license to talk about torture, or better provide a base from which to start the talk. But I'd heard otherwise from journalists on my (liberal) side of the torture argument, while also knowing Hollywood and the general militaristic nature of movies (and the director).

[4] To that argument: that we should torture in secret and never let anyone know. Really? Many societies, much less open and more tyrannical were unable to do this. Do you really think that it would be possible in America?

[5] And there a million other situations where the morality of the number of lives does come into play (such as triage, such as some aspects of social policy), where the rights of many does triumph the rights of few. A democracy is based on this, isn't it? So why make an exception here?

[6] It should be noted that torture was used against US service members, and many times. It wasn't a matter of mere mimicry. And a further note that much of this torture was merely sadistic or to gain false confessions from these POWs

[7] I'm fully aware that those who might look upon nations who torture as hardcore (in a positive way) may well stand on the opposing side of the torture debate as well. Many times I've heard torture (only in serious times, mind you) proponents tout the Chinese or some other nation and their refusal to submit to silly moralities or their steadfastness or their focused vision or their ends justify the means logic. (that friend was not one of these people, from what I know)

[8] What happens when we can give a pill and gain information, no pain involved? I’m not sure. I would only say that such methods, if they ever come into being, should always be used with discretion and testing. For if they are meant to do something innocuous without doing so, then I’m guessing that they will still cause many of the same residual traces of torture after wards (how could they not? Following the same pathways that other more physical methods did so as well). But I suppose I'd leave that for another day.

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  1. Respect what you've done here, but perhaps it's too ideological? Perhaps the ticking time bomb (nuke) scenario requires torture and for everything less than that, we can be more measured about them (since they would definitely not hurt as many people)?

    Yes intel is never right, but that doesn't mean we don't bomb either, does it?

    1. What really stinks with this whole idea that the world should be perfect, as if it ever was, is the thought that perhaps there isn't a right answer to this and people just feel bad for hearing that we've done something like torture (and that some people like the idea of being tough). We shouldn't let these interfere with what rational people would say in a discourse. Discussions need to focus on cost benefit analysis because do we want anything else? Do we want feelings to come into this? No. It works or it doesn't and if it does we move on from there.

    2. And the answer to that question is that yes it does work. What do you think ISIS will do to you, or what does the author think ISIS will do if they captured him?

  2. I'm sorry but there are people out there who want all of us dead. They don't care for the reasons that's what they want. They would giggle at the idea of our civilization in ruins. And you want to protect them? Give them a chance to fight us? We try everything we can to follow the rules, but when the people we are fighting care not for any civilized entry into this world, then we must cut them out. It's all there is to it.

    1. I'm with you on this one. I don't get liberals' obsession with minor details. What is war? It's the act of deciding to destroy other humans, many of them, until you get what you want (so far that's the only definition that makes sense). That's it. Why is torturing so much worse than bombing a village? There will always be something wrong.
      I think liberals really want to ban all acts of war. Great. I'm all for that. But you need to start with the other side first.

  3. Know that the problem is?It's the fact that people can't let go of any of these cultural stereotypes when they talk. And when you throw fear into the mix (yeah, that's the only thing that torture is, a form of debased revenge acted out on an enemy who 'is evil') then you have a perfect excuse to do what you want and claim it is for information. What tripe. Of course things were never perfect, but they did start out with some ideals.
    And this is the final death knell of a country(though before gitmo we were torturing, are torturing thousands of inmates, minorities, the destitute, the ones that can't afford the law in our prisons. So there's a heavy case to be made that this isn't something that happened when the "rules changed"—a trite remark if ever there was one) is that for some reason being efficient is a trump card. Even for laws, even for the Constitution (say it with an echo, tools). They are all subservient to the master of $ and GDP. Great, so what happens when that is taken down? When there is nothing left of laws and morals that we stand naked, for money is power and power is merely the threat of violence. Think on that famous Mao saying about power growing out of the barrel of a gun. Sure, it does, but it doesn't grow much from there. It needs moral agreements and moral codes and social agreement for it to grow into a healthy plant. Lose that, give the plant nothing but the darkness of power and money and you will be left with nothing. Take that to the bank,


Please comment to add to the discussion. Be kind. But let the democratic ideal lead you. And no spamming!