Friday, April 06, 2007

To Torture or Not To Torture?

This post is based on a comment Familyman made on the last post. When you discuss what means are acceptable or not acceptable when interrogating prisoners, you quickly get into a very complicated discussion. I felt this topic needed more room than a few comments tacked onto another post.

The question I wish to pose to my readers is simply this, “Is torture ever an acceptable means to gather information from a prisoner of war?” Any time torture is discussed a few ground rules have to be in place. Most interrogators I have heard or read interviews from believe that torture typically isn’t very useful. The information gained from torturing an individual is suspect. Many interrogators believe that an individual being tortured will manufacture information simply to make the pain stop.

At the same time, some would question whether or not the alleged practices that have been leaked from Gitmo or Abu Ghraib are considered torture. In order to cut past this, let’s let torture refer to anything that an interrogator might consider above and beyond typical military interrogation techniques. This is intentionally vague. I wish to start this discussion focusing on whether or not torture is ever acceptable, no matter what methods are employed. To that end, I am going to start with the classic “Ticking Time Bomb” Senario:

An individual you have in custody has just placed a nuclear dirty bomb in downtown Manhattan. You know with 100% certainty that the bomb is in place and is set to go off in one hour. You also know with 100% certainty that the individual you have placed the bomb and knows how to stop the bomb from detonating. If you are able to get the information from this individual in a reasonable amount of time, you can stop the bomb. There facts are hard rules of the scenario. The question becomes, do you authorize any form of torture on this prisoner? Why? Why not?


familyman said...

Well, I was going to wait and see if anyone else chimed in on this befoer adding my 2 cents. But here we go -

The Ticking time bomb scenario, kind of puts it in the Bruce Willis movie genre. It's kind of hard to argue against using torture as a last resort in that situation. But how realistic or common is that situation really?

More realistically, there are hundreds of people who are or have been in our custody, who don't pose that kind of immediate threat, who have been tortured or at best very poorly treated, when other means of interrogation/treatment would probably have been much more productive.

Not only is it wrong 99% of the time, it is as you indicated in your post, likely to make the detainee say anything just to make it stop. And it sets the stage for other countries to justify treating our soldiers the same way.

Also, why do you call the treatment the prisoners received at Abu Ghraib "alleged"? Have you seen the pictures?

Andy D said...

The reason I started with the ticking time bomb is to illustrate a point. If you agree that in this scenario torture is acceptable, then we aren’t arguing if torture is ok or not, but simply when it is ok.

I believe torture should definitely be authorized in a situation such as the ticking time bomb. However, like I said in the post, most interrogators don’t believe torture in the classic sense actually yields any results.

I also said “alleged” because while I have seen reports and pictures from Abu Ghraib, I haven’t seen any pictures of something I would call torture. I have heard of a lot of other things that were simply speculation without any real facts to back them up. The things we saw pictures of are definitely not something you want to see our military doing, but I don’t think they fall into the same ballpark as the kind of torture the Muslim groups fighting against us are ready to employ on our soldiers. I haven’t heard of any prisoners at Gitmo or Abu Ghraib being beheaded.

I also haven’t heard of any practices at Gitmo that would come any where near being called torture.

Brandon said...

Like familyman, I do have my doubts that your hour until doomsday scenario is all that realistic, but I'm not sure torture would be necessary here. I agree with you that if we're ever going to torture someone, this would be a clear example of when torture might be useful.

At the same time, I have to wonder if torture would work in this scenario. I'm not sure that the person in custody would crack in an hour, especially if they're devoted to their cause. I doubt that torture or the standard rapport-building interrogation would work.

David said...

Suppose you are in charge of finding the bomb in Manhattan, and you torture someone. I would not condemn that. I would vote to acquit on a jury, I would hope the president would pardon the you if you were convicted by a jury which I was not on.

But I don't believe that can be used to support people who say we shound't make torture illegal. Suppose we made a law that it was legal to torture people if it could be expected to extract information that would save many lives. How many intelligence operations could be said with certainty to have no potential for saving many lives? Who will determine the cost in lives as we make future enemies for our country? How about when the wrong person is tortured by mistake?

Andy D said...

All of these are excellent comments. My point is simply this; we aren’t arguing that torture should never be an option. My own personal opinion is that it should be available, but only in an extraordinarily limited way. Perhaps something that would require a direct Presidential approval and only on very high yield prisoners. Someone the interrogator would have to truly believe would yield very valuable information under torture. It would need to be something very carefully thought through, but something that should be an option none the less.

familyman said...

In my mind, torture is like the death penalty. It's morally wrong - period.

You don't hit a kid to teach them hitting is wrong. You don't kill someone to teach society that killing is wrong. And you can't torture someone and then turn around and say that you are morally superior to that person.

Andy D said...

I disagree with the comparison between the death penalty and torturing. However, I can understand you stance on torture. That is why I started with the ticking time bomb scenario. If you believe that you don’t torture someone in that case, then you truly disagree with torture. If you can accept torture in the ticking time bomb, then it is only a matter of where you draw the line.