Tuesday, September 1, 2009

We Don't Torture!

(Originally written in 2007)
Americans are a decent and compassionate people; we believe in treating people fairly, humanely, and with respect. We aren't the kind of people who torture our enemies as so many others have throughout history and even in modern times. So the question of "water-boarding", which has been outlawed under international agreements as a form of torture and banned by the US government, would seem to be moot. Yet the current Attorney General nominee's Senate approval has been held up because of his refusal to categorically disavow our government's use of this technique. What's up with that?

Apparently, our government HAS used water-boarding in recent years, specifically at Abu-Ghraib and with high profile terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, such as senior al-Qaeda operative Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. I guess the rationale is that if it doesn't happen in the US, then it's OK. Not really sure how that rationale works, but just add it to the long list of things that I don't quite understand. At any rate, it seems that the A.G. nominee (Michael Mukasey) doesn't want to leave CIA agents who used the technique open to prosecution, and also that he doesn't want to totally preclude water-boarding's use in possible extraordinary future circumstances. We can all see where he's coming from, but still - if it's torture and it's illegal, why are we having this discussion at all?

Well here's why. Like just about everything else, torture and the use thereof is hardly a black or white issue. In the case of water-boarding, it imitates the sensation of drowning and causes extreme horror and fear in its victims. One imagines that very real, temporary psychological damage may result, but apparently there is little or no significant permanent physical harm done. It's torture, but barely so, by my way of thinking. Here's what I mean.

In wartime, enemy combatants and, in this age where warfare often takes the form of terrorism, suspected terrorists, are interrogated to gain information designed to save lives. That's the way it works and the way it's always been. The question is: what kinds of interrogation are acceptable? Let's invision a simplistic scale that goes from 1 to 100, where 1 is very clearly OK and 100 is very clearly unacceptable. Inviting a captured soldier for tea and cookies and a very friendly discussion in a pleasant, comfortable setting with no pressure applied might count as a 1, for example. On the other hand, hanging an enemy naked by meathooks run through his shoulders, while touching live electrical wires to his testicles as his wife and 8-year old daughter are repeatedly raped and his son slowly strangled to death
in front of him - that, I would suggest, is a 100 and REAL torture. That kind of thing has happened, by the way, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Idi Amin's Uganda, and assorted other ugly places.

Playing loud rock 'n roll 24 hours a day, forcing Muslims to eat pork and look at porn, keeping room temperatures uncomfortably hot or cold, stressful, threatening interrogation sessions that might include angry German shephard dogs and smacking someone around a little - combinations of things like these might rate a 20, a 45, maybe a 70 on our little imaginary scale. Trying to keep things numerical, let's just say for the sake of argument that actual torture begins at 70, and that water-boarding is perhaps a 75 or an 80. So it IS torture, but not quite in the same league as the really nasty stuff.

The fact is that we lose a great deal by using torture. The USA, the great shining light on the hill, leader of the free world, the most democratic of all nations - using illegal torture techniques! What could be more discrediting and give our enemies more reason to berate us as hypocrites? Furthermore, our use of torture, if found out, makes it much more likely that the bad guys will use even worse torture techniques on our soldiers and on innocent civilians.

Fair enough. But now let's look at the other side of the equation. What could be gained from any interrogation or torture? Consider, please, this extreme and unlikely hypothetical situation: Somehow or another, the bad guys have acquired 10 fully functional nuclear bombs, and they have a plan in place and ready to go to drop those on the 10 largest U.S. cities. (Updated note: The Washington Post published an article on November 11th which identified concerns about the possibility of terrorists acquiring Pakistani nuclear weapons if the situation continues to deteriorate there.) We are somehow 100% certain that they have these bombs and are capable of using them. We conservatively estimate that these bombs will immediately kill at least 10 million people, with many more dying eventually. That 10 million dead would include you, your entire family, and all your friends, by the way. Additionally, the bombings would certainly send the nation and its economy into chaos and a collapse that would make the Great Depression look like a good time. America, as we know it today, would cease to be. But here's the thing: we have the head terrorist and he has information that will allow us to prevent any of these bombs from being used. But time's really short; we have only a few hours, and he's not talking so far. What would you NOT be willing to do to get that information from him?

Well of course anyone who says they wouldn't use the most extreme methods available is just plain lying. Protect one brutal terrorist who we KNOW has committed previous deadly attacks, or 10 million innocent people and the fate of our nation? There is no question of what is right in this situation. So there it is: torture CAN be justified, at least in this very specific and unlikely case. But what if we were only 98% sure of our information, instead of 100% sure? What if our confidence level was 80%? 60%? Would extreme torture still be justified,
if you could ensure that the rest of the world wouldn't know you'd done it? At what level of certainty might we back off on the amount of torture we'd use? What if we were "only" talking about 100,000 people dead instead of 10 million? Only 5000 people? 200 people? Would you still insist on the authorities using extreme torture if need be? How about milder torture - say, water-boarding ? Would that be OK?

And so: surprise, surprise. The torture question isn't quite that simple. You and I and Mukasey and the local rabbi will disagree on when torture might be appropriate and what degree of torture would be acceptable. We'd ALL - if given truth serum - agree to use it in the extreme scenario painted above, but after that we're just not sure. Different values, different perspectives - the whole issue becomes very gray.

A final thought: in surveys of Americans following 9/11, something like 80% said they expected another major terrorist attack on America within 6 months. We know that Al-Qaeda has been trying their darndest to do just that. We know that they canceled a major subway attack in the US a couple of years ago because they wanted to go ahead with a "much more deadly" attack instead. What might that have been, by the way? But here we are, 6 YEARS later, and no new attacks on the US (knock on wood). We don't hear a lot about that fact, and I suppose most Americans just kind of figure that we've lucked out since 2001, that it just kinda worked out that way. But do you think that maybe um..... "aggressive" interrogation techniques might be part of the reason we've been able to fend off new attacks? And if that is the case,
if those interrogations included some forms of torture, would you rather have had another 9/11 or something much worse? Really? Would you be willing to explain to the victims' families that you were in a position to prevent the THOUSANDS OF DEATHS, but didn't because you would have had to use a technique that was illegal???

Each of us has to answer that question for ourselves, but it seems to me that the whole torture thing is anything but black or white. In a calm, sterile, environment we proudly and categorically condemn torture, smug in our moral superiority to those cretins who would argue otherwise. In a real live situation, with thousands or millions of lives hanging in the balance, I bet most of us would think differently, however. That, I suppose, is the point Mukasey must keep in mind as part of his job. And that is also the point that those who say "no torture under any circumstances!" haven't bothered to think through all the way.


jeremy said...

Although torture is inhumane in some cases, i believe it needs to be done in certain circumstances. For example if it is a high priority, you don't do it, and something goes terribly wrong, you can be the one to tell their family, you had the chance to keep him safe.

Joanna said...

Torture can be excused if you are talking about innocent lies at stake. If I was the leader of a nation I would rather torture a terrorist then put my citizens at risk. Although it would tarnish the name of my nation, I would know that it was for the greater good.

Ann said...

sTorture isn't something that anyone will ever agree on. I think that it should be allowed in special cases like the example you said about the head terrorist knowing. However, I don't think that torture should be something that is done secretly because when it gets out, the nation that did the torture will look worse than if they had already legalized the torture and had openly admitted to doing it.

hasheem said...

Torture is bad, But in a situation where the criminal doesnt want to spit out drastic information its necessary.

Kal said...

Extra Credit
Hi Mr. Strebler, I enjoyed reading “We Don’t Torture.” This was a very interesting article that got me thinking about the torture, we as America, supposedly don’t condone.
I found the point on the torture that went on in Iraq and Uganda repulsive. I don’t see how any human being could condone that. The people that participated in these acts must’ve been sick! I agree that on your scale of 1 through 100, this was an example of a sickening 100.
I found your idea of the torture starting at a 70 valid because everything before that would be just about increasingly uncomfortable. This water boarding technique could be rated as a 75, unless done several times in which the idea you mentioned about physiological damage would apply greatly to the person being interrogated.
I agree with the idea you bring up about us being the “great” land we are made out to be, but discrediting ourselves with torture amongst possible terrorists. Doesn’t this make us hypocrites? Yes, it does. Why torture when it can backfire on our own soldiers who may be tortured even worse in places of great hostility.
The paragraph with the hypothetical story brings up an amazing point. Up to this point in my response, I believed that torture could not be condoned, but if hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of peoples lives were in danger, then we’d certainly torture the enemy to get the information we need to save those lives. Although this is a very controversial issue, I’m sure most sane people would save the lives of others rather than someone who is trying to destroy ours. Then another question is raised. What if it were smaller amount of people? What if we weren’t absolutely sure? What would we do? I’m sure our government wouldn’t hesitate to torture these enemies, but what if we weren’t sure they were planning anything? What do we do? These are BIG questions that can really have no straight answer due to the morality most of us have.
For the final point, I would have to say that I agree because terrorists WILL know something of interest. I believe the U.S.’ torturing has indeed stop some events, whether small or big.
So through reading this essay, I began to condone torture in some cases. Although it is not morally right in my eyes, I do believe it is the right thing to do if lives are in danger.
** I also submitted this essay and am re-submitting it now. In case you want proof, I have the hard copies you already graded.**

Emonye said...

In reading this essay, I am glad that I’m not the one determining whether torture would be acceptable in a certain circumstance. At the begging of the essay I wasn’t clear exactly on what “water-boarding” was and since it was said it was some form of torture I immediately assumed that anyone who (Senate) would want to keep this around was someone out of their mind. The type of people that they use this form or any other form of torture to was terrorist, such as “Abu-Ghraib” and I think that it is unfair that they say that torture is illegal but they go and secretly torture people that are not from the U.S. If they say it is illegal do not try to justify what you are doing, do not use torture at all. In further reading, I read your example situation on how there are different scales of torture and If torture was legal than I would agree with using it in certain extreme circumstances. In addition, in reading more on what was “water-boarding” I do not feel that it was such an extreme form of torture knowing that the people were not being killed and were only trying to be scared. It is wrong again because it’s illegal but a thought form of torture that does not harm the criminal. Also, I agree that in saying that torture is illegal and then going and doing it anyways does “…gives our enemies more reason to berate us as hypocrites.) So I don’t understand why they don’t stop trying to act like the good guys and then go get caught in doing something bad, breaking their own laws. They should make up their mines and make torture legal or illegal. This would be difficult because keeping it illegal, it can sometimes be justified and if it was made legal, I feel that many would take advantage of this and torture the innocent.

mayapapaya said...

I now realize that torture is definately not a "Black and White" situation.It is much more complicated when it comes down to having the country in jepordy. I enjoyed this essay because it really made me think about what I would do in situations like that.

Jaki Emathinger said...

Torture is such a wider topic, I was almost disappointed to read about such a small part of it. While we do use torture as a mean to get information, we also torture inmates just because. I don't think that focusing on just this bit of torture is as valid as what we could be focusing on, which is torture by a different, or many different names.

Jon Strebler said...

Perhaps, Jaki. But the essay was written in response to a specific situation (attorney general's beliefs on the issue vis a vis Iraqi prisoners), and you or anyone else should feel free to write about the issue as it applies in other situations.

Still - the underlying thesis remains: Anyone who says that torture is NEVER justified, after considering the hypothetical situations in the essay, is simply not being truthful, or else they are - quite literally - irrational. s

Jorge Saldana said...

I am open for both sides there is to torture. In some cases, like the scenario you outlined, I find it necessary. However, in others, the person might have had no connection whatsoever to a planned attack. There were 7.3 million people in jail or in probation in 2008. Furthermore, "The United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, admits that statistically 8% to 12% of all state prisoners are either actually or factually innocent" truthandjusticedenied.com/Wrongful_Conviction_Statist.html). Jails for daily criminals and prisons where suspected terrorists are held are different but the point is,there must be some error and innocent lives could have been tortured. Despite this, I find it necessary in order to save countless lives.

Kenden said...

After reading your article, I agree that torture under extreme circumstances, where time is very limited and the potential for harm is very high, is a viable option. However, it is important to make the logic end there, as its use in general intelligence gathering seldom has such crushing time constraints or the extremely high potential for massive loss of life. In addition to the moral reasons for not doing torture, it is important to note that torture has been found to have limited value in acquiring useful intelligence.

GabriellaReha said...

I honestly do believe torture is acceptable under these circumstances. If terrorist want to kill more than 10,000 people and we have a chance to stop it from happening, then hey why not? Yet I do think that when everyone found out about Guantanamo Bay, it gave the US a bad image since it is seen as the “leader of the free world”.

Sarah said...

Mr. Strebler, your essay makes some very good points. It is true that the torture methods used by the US are milder than those of dictatorships such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia ect. It is also reasonable to assume that most people would support torture in the moment that one person had information that could take many lives, however, the purpose of a ban on torture and the Geneva conventions is to prevent heat of the moment decisions that are unethical.

Mikayla H said...

Some torture can be justified, but not extreme ones that lead to death. Any amount of people dying would be worth interrogating a terrorist for, and because we do torture, the number of people who may possibly die usually determine the intensity and the type of torture a terrorist may endure. There are alternative ways to get information out of people, and those alternatives should be explored before resorting to violence that could lead to death. “We Believe in treating people fairly, humanely, and with respect”, now, I would have to beg to differ, and wonder, who does? The world would be perfect if we could all live in peace, but most of us know, that’s not happening any time soon.

Bernee Francisco said...

I agree with you that there are those special circumstances where torture can be justified. The scenario you described with the man being tortured with his wife and kids was horrible and I really can't imagine anyone having come up with something as horrible as that, but I guess it does happen. I couldn't and I doubt that anyone could live knowing that millions of lives could have been spared because of them, because of one person who could be interrogated and perhaps tortured. It's worse, in my opinion, to see millions and millions of people utterly destroyed over one person who had a choice of being where he is. I wouldn't be able to stand by watching it especially if it was someone I knew.

Davis Permann said...

Excellent points, Strebler.

'The hypocrisy of condemning torture shows in the desire to be safe.' As a country, we have no wish to see our people killed. If the health of the enemy must be put beneath the safety of the people, so be it! War has never been a fair thing. We're just as bad as the bad guys sometimes, and all that really shows is that no one has the moral high ground in armed conflict.

Joanna Garcia said...

Your extreme scenarios give us a higher sense of the real issue. Is torture acceptable or not? With those types of scenarios things are put in perspective and it makes it more real. I agree with the view that if the U.S uses torture techniques there is lots to lose with our accountability. Since it tarnishes our name and is against what the U.S is known for. Yet we should worry more about our people and our safety then what other countries think of us. This type of issue is above our understanding of morals, since one has to do bad for the greater good.