Torture is Neither Moral nor Practical

Amazing. After being a dormant issue for the last year, the issue of torture has raised its ugly head again. Not only did we have the ignominious news that James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen joined Jay Bybee as LDS members who contributed to the policy of torture and shamed our faith. We now have a report from The New York Times that at the very same time that Congress was writing a law banning such practices, the Justice Department under newly confirmed Alberto Gonzalez surreptitiously issued a statement endorsing the use of torture in CIA interrogations.

While contemptible, the news is hardly surprising. As I outlined in my original post on torture, the administration’s disavowals of torture following the news of Abu Ghraib were insincere—and it was then White House counsel Gonzalez who had rationalized away the Geneva Conventions on behalf of the administration. When Congress passed the (anti)torture bill, the President brazenly added a signing statement virtually announcing his intention to continue to utilize torture.

While I’ve discussed the fact that there is absolutely no justification for the use of torture from a LDS or Christian perspective, there are plenty of people around the nation who have defended the practice on theoretical pragmatic grounds. If it will save lives, what’s a few broken fingers on an (possible) terrorist? Idealist ethics are meaningless while the cliche time bomb is ticking—or so they claim. They find it acceptable to compromise principle for expediency.

Very well: lets examine the practicality of torture. Can we foil terrorist plots by torturing suspected terrorists, eliminate their cells by coercing confessions of suspected terrorists through “enhanced” interrogation? Most evidence suggests not—Jack Bauer’s astounding success excepted.

It has become widely accepted in the criminal justice field that harsh interrogation techniques are more likely to result in false confessions than meaningful information, as in the case of Michael Crowe, and of dozens of wrongfully convicted suspects in Chicago under police commander Jon Burge. When faced with physical or mental torture, the victim typically provides what he feels his interrogators want to hear, rather than truth. It seems foolish to believe that torture could be more effective in a military setting than in criminal investigations.

Experts commissioned by the Intelligence Science Board seem to have seconded that conclusion. They determined that the “enhanced” interrogation techniques used in the administration’s so-called War on Terror are “outmoded, amateurish, and unreliable.” West Point dean and Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan and FBI interrogation expert Navarro both insist that torture is simply not effective, especially when dealing with radical Muslims.

In other words, to excuse torture techniques on practical security grounds is ignorant and misguided. This administration has, consistent with their usual M.O, chosen a course of action which is not only ineffective, but counterproductive. They are willing to sell the nation’s virtue for fool’s gold. Torture is less likely to result in valuable data, has eroded world opinion, and provides yet another point of contention for terrorist recruiters to use against our nation. Hardly pragmatic.

The only practical aspect of the administration’s de facto acceptance of torture is the political aspect. It appeals to their neoconservative political base: that segment of our population which prefers to see this conflict as an existential threat, a showdown against evil in which we must pull no punches to triumph. This constituency is drawn to the tough talk of this president and the strong stand against terrorists which the “enhanced” interrogation represents.

That sort of pragmatism is one which our nation can do without.

This does not mean that there interrogation itself is futile. Hanns Joachim Scharff interrogated quite effectively in WWII. The most successful of the German army’s interrogators, Scharff was so highly respected for his skill that he was invited speak to U.S. military officials after the war. His tools? Patience, respect, and dignity. By creating an environment in which his “victims” felt safe and relaxed, and by engaging in long, friendly conversations, he was able to accumulate a great deal of operable information. The rapport-building techniques he modeled and discussed provide the framework for F.B.I. interrogation methods to this day.

And just think, we wouldn’t have to betray our principles in support of those proven tactics. Too bad this administration and their enablers (especially the LDS ones) didn’t consider that.

4 Responses to “Torture is Neither Moral nor Practical”

  1. Aaron Orgill Says:

    If it makes any difference, you’ve won a convert on this issue. I’d still rather not be too quick to condemn our fellow Mormons who contributed to this rather than the Administration itself who are being so defiant (surprise, surprise – Alberto Gonzalez and Bush are slimy). But I’ve been persuaded that if anything good can come out of this, it should be that our Muslim brothers learn how kind we can be when we don’t have to. I hope we can elect someone who actually cares about talking to our enemies and our image in the world. Good post, Derek.

  2. WP Says:

    You both should read the original investigation and report which was published in Vanity Fair Magazine. The several Mormons you mentioned were brought over to the ‘dark side’ from work they were doing at Kirkland AFB in Spokane. Their original tasks for the government were psychologically fortifying pilots for the USAF if they were downed and captured behind enemy lines. They are now making big bucks and have bought homes in Florida. NPR also ran the story about these Mormons. It is shameful.

    I have a link to the Vanity Fair piece at:

  3. cb Says:

    I’m in general agreement with you on this one, but I’m not sure you can be so categorical in your denial of torture’s practicality. I think your moral revulsion might be clouding your logic a little bit. If you really want to believe something you’re more likely to accept it uncritically (not that this is a bad thing). But if torture is really completely ineffective, why do you think people still do it? I don’t know the answer to this and would be interested in your reply. One reason could be the one you suggested . . . for political gain. I just don’t buy this one–too naive I guess. Maybe there are some out there who advocate torture as a way of gaining ignorant political support, but I just don’t think that’s the driving force behind the Bush Administration’s “torture” policy. Another potential reason people torture might be out of anger toward a group of people they can’t get their hands on–like the child (or adult) who takes out his anger on someone else. I actually see this reason as being more plausible than the first (shamefully). People who torture for this reason have no moral ground to stand on (yes–and this implies that I think others who torture might have a moral ground to stand on in some situations, although a less moral one than those who take other approaches). A third reason that governments might torture is to send a message to others who are fighting against them. Continue opposing us and this is what lies in store for you. Under this rationale, not only would a government torture, but it would allow its use of torture to become known–an interesting thought (and an alternative explanation to what is likely your view [the ignorant political support explanation for why a government might leak news of torture). A final reason that governments might torture is that they find it to be effective–and therefore to save lives (here is the possible moral reason for torture). The academic studies can say what they will, but if you were a law enforcement or military officer and were privy to a situation where use of torture or some torture-like technique had actually saved the lives of innocent people . . . how would you respond to the academic criticisms? Obviously, practical experience could work the other way as well. I just have a feeling that torture is not as impractical as you are quick to assume it is. I’ll hasten to add, though, that you are absolutely right in condemning it as immoral, and, probably right in stating that it is less effective (especially if it gets in the way of developing alternative, kinder, and also effective interrogation techniques).

    Anyhow, those are my thoughts.

    BTW–those of us who categorically deny the use of torture should really think about how we would respond in the “ticking time bomb” scenario (if such a scenario actually exists). I can’t imagine any of us who wouldn’t torture. The real thing that differentiate’s people on this issue, in my mind, is WHEN someone concludes that they have been placed in a ticking time bomb situation. Some seem almost anxious for it, and that’s disconcerting.

  4. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Interesting comment, CB. You are correct, I cannot categorically state that it is impossible to obtain legitimate information through torture. But I would firmly insist (assuming you will be reading such a tardy response) that when it comes to actions which so contradict the principles we hold, there has to be very compelling evidence that those actions justify compromising those principles. In the case of torture, we seem to lack any evidence that torture is effective. Our principles are being compromised on a rather tenuous possibility.

    I don’t believe these are really academic criticisms being brought against the use of torture. Neither Brigadier General Finnegan nor FBI interrogation expert Navarro could really be considered Ivory Tower types, pipe-smoking professors theorizing on the topic without any real connection to the world of military action or law enforcement. Their opinions are based on real world experience in those fields. And from what I gathered from my studies, the bulk of military and law enforcement professionals have disputed the use of torture. If anything, it is this administration, one largely bereft of practical military or law enforcement experience, which is basing their policy on theory (though hardly an academic one).

    I question the value of considering our actions in a “ticking time bomb” scenario. It sounds to me too much like a child badgering their parent with “what if” questions, trying to find an excuse to get out of doing what is right. Such a scenario is theoretically possible, but appears to be so remote as to lack merit for consideration.

    I will clarify that I don’t necessarily think that this administration is choosing to use torture for deliberately political purposes. I’m suspicious enough about them that I wouldn’t deny the possibility, but I doubt they are quite so monstrous. More likely, the “tough guy” mentality is simply a part of their mental paradigm. The political benefit is most likely a peripheral benefit, or an aspect which subconsciously makes the use of torture that much more appealing.

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