Thursday, December 16, 2004

Is Torture an Appropriate Interrogation Method?

This article is an answer to Andrew Sullivan's comment on his website today (16 Dec 04).

While I agree most Americans that torture is not something anyone can endorse as a routine interrogation method, I believe it has its times and places.

The reasons we don't torture enemy soldiers (recognized members of an enemy's military) are twofold: we don't want our POWs tortured (fat lot of good that does us, because American POWs have been tortured in every conflict this country has been in), and there is generally nothing to be gained from torture that can not be obtained by less ethically-repulsive means.

However, there are exceptions. In some instances torture can be (and has been) extremely effective. Take the case of the US light colonel who threatened to shoot an Iraqi terrorist a year or so ago in northern Iraq, and who then fired a shot from his pistol next to the terrorist's head. That terrorist quickly gave up valuable information that saved American lives and facilitated the capture of more terrorists. While firing a pistol next to someone's head is pretty benigh as far as torture goes (psychological rather than physical, if you discount ringing ears and a headache), it was effective. And, the colonel was forced to retire from the military shortly thereafter. I'm sure his regret wasn't for his actions, and my regret is that he was forced out rather than awarded a commendation.

On the other hand, much of the amateurish, brutal abuse of prisoners is pointless at best, and counterproductive in many cases. The North Vietnamese were psychopathic in their torture of American POWs, and they did get some information, but because they went overboard physically they were not as effective as they could have been. Many US POWs remarked upon their repatriation that if the North Vietnamese had been less interested in hurting them and more interested in getting information they would have gotten far more useful intelligence. Everyone has his breaking point, but brutal physical torture breaks its victims for the sole value of breaking them instead of learning something useful.

Would you rule out physical torture in all circumstances? Think of the "Dirty Harry" scene where Detective Callahan has the Scorpio Killer writhing on the 50 yard line, stomping on his shot-up leg until the location of the buried-alive teen girl is revealed. The girl is found (too late, she has already suffocated), but the killer is freed because torture is illegal, and Dirty Harry is in serious trouble. If my daughter were the one kidnapped, I'd be in line to do a little leg stomping.

Or how about another current-day scenario? Like, say, we intercept a message telling us that Al Qu'aida has planted a nuke somewhere in Manhattan, and that intercept leads us to capture an Al Qu'aida operative in Brooklyn who has just returned from planting that nuke, and arming it to detonate in 3 hours. We can't evacuate Manhattan in time and that bomb will kill millions when it goes off. If we can possibly extract the location of the bomb from the terrorist via torture, should we do it? Or do we sentence millions to death by refusing to torture?

It comes down to this: if one side breaks the rules to gain advantage, and one side refuses to break the rules and cedes the advantage, then the 'rule-following' side will lose. If our enemies are willing to fight a no-holds-barred conflict and we aren't, then we are (literally and figuratively) going to get our heads handed to us.

One of the tenets of game theory is "tit for tat." The only way to maintain parity in a contest is to accept no more limits on your strategy and tactics than your opponents do. When the Germans protested the use of shotguns by our troops in WWI (they outnumbered us in machineguns, so we went the low-tech route) and threatened to execute any US soldier captured with a shotgun, Woodrow Wilson let it be known that we would execute one German POW for every executed US POW. The Germans decided that perhaps, if mustard gas was legitimate, then shotguns were also. Similarly, chemical weapons weren't used in WWII by the Germans because the British and US informed Hitler that any tactical use of such weapons would be countered with a massive strategic chemical strike against German cities. Hitler took us at our word. And, in 1991, George Schultz took Tariq Aziz aside and informed him that the US would respond to any use of WMDs as if nukes were involved... and that we would burn Iraq off of the face of the earth. Saddam got the message.

Letting terrorist know that we will not use torture is telling them that there is no downside to keeping their mouths shut. I would submit that this is an advantage we cannot cede. And while I don't support brutal physical torture (because it is both morally wrong and as harmful to the torturers as to the recipients), I don't have a problem with humiliating terrorists by making them walk around naked and get barked at by German Shepards. Heck, that passes for fun in many US cities with the whips-and-leather crowd. Further, I think any form of psychological torture (lying to prisoners, telling them their family will be killed if they don't cooperate, or intimidation like threatening to kill them as the Army colonel did) is legitimate -- as opposed to actually carrying out the threats. If we fake killing one terrorist (complete with special effects like fake blood and brains on a wall) and the others talk, what's the problem? We should also be willing to use chemical means (sodium pentothal or other drugs) that enable us to extract information without actually physically torturing terrorists. And, in the extreme (as in the planted nuke scenario above), all bets are off.

I know these views aren't going to be popular with the "treat terrorists as criminals" law-enforcement-approach-favoring types, but then I think their approach is wrong, dangerous, ignorant, and naïve. The American public seems to agree: that's why they didn't trust John Kerry and the Democratic approach to the War on Terror.

Does that make us bad people? Nope. A society offers the mercy and compassion it can afford. Torturing someone because they haven't paid a parking ticket is way out of bounds. Torturing someone because they've planted a nuke in an American city (or because they've planted an IED by an Iraqi road) and we want to know where it is before it goes off) is appropriate, and the level of torture should reflect the threat to innocent human life.