Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does torture work?

There are a lot of folks talking about this.

"Gee, Cheney, who will be shamed and maybe indicted if torture is useless, is telling us that torture is acceptable. Now, as tempting as it is to note that he's telling us self-serving bullshit, maybe we should consider whether torture works... because, after all, Cheney was so (cough) successful, and he seems so serious."

The trouble is that there were a lot of people who supported torture in the days after 9/11, who now have to try to justify their own cowardice and brutality. And there were a lot of people who turned the other way when hearing about torture, and they have to try to justify their own guilt over not caring.

Well, there's one thing that we know that torture does, one way in which we know that torture "works".

We know that torture can force people to say whatever needs to be said to get the torture to stop. In SERE, for example, our military folks are forced to sign confessions saying they have committed war crimes. These are tough people, who know they will become legends if they hold out against the worst that SERE can dish out to them... and they, in almost all cases, sign false confessions.

(I've heard it claimed that no one holds up under torture, but that groups have managed to escape or overpower the interrogators. Obviously, I can't speak authoritatively on this subject.)

So we know torture can easily produce false information. We also know that false information can be a lot more damaging than a lack of factual information. It can be very hard to prove a negative! On the other hand, truthful statements are easier to collaborate... hey, they're true, after all. So standard interrogation, which produces more true statements, is going to be better.

Ah, but if there's a ticking time bomb...

Yes, indeed. If we know there's a ticking time bomb, and we know who knows the location of the time bomb, we can torture that person... and maybe get false information out of them. And then we waste precious time chasing down a false lead.

And if it is a false lead, does it mean the torture-victim lied? Or didn't know the bomb's location after all?

The only thing torture does is get people to say something. Proving that it's true is another thing entirely, and figuring out if it's false can be flat out impossible. Standard interrogation methods produce better intelligence; that should be all anyone needs to know.

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