12 January 2005


Anne Applebaum's essay this morning in the Washington Post on terror is, if anything, a bit too optimistic about the possible value of torture in interrogation—and it's not very optimistic.

Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, the really interesting question is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to believe that it works. At the moment, there is a myth in circulation, a fable that goes something like this: Radical terrorists will take advantage of our fussy legality, so we may have to suspend it to beat them. Radical terrorists mock our namby-pamby prisons, so we must make them tougher. Radical terrorists are nasty, so to defeat them we have to be nastier.

Perhaps it's reassuring to tell ourselves tales about the new forms of "toughness" we need, or to talk about the special rules we will create to defeat this special enemy. Unfortunately, that toughness is self-deceptive and self-destructive. Ultimately it will be self-defeating as well.

"The Torture Myth" (12 Jan 05).

One of the collateral effects that Ms. Applebaum does not discuss in her essay is danger of relying upon unverified testimony extracted by torture. Torture doesn't make people tell the truth; it makes them say something—anything—to get the pain to stop. The problem is that too many people without experience or knowledge of various interrogation techniques, such as people who've watched too many spy thrillers, will unquestioningly accept what comes out of a torture session as true and act upon it without verification. Leaving aside the "one can only tell what one knows" problem—it's very rare to have the people who really know all of the operational details in one's custody before the operation—there remains a very real threat of misleading "confessions" that somehow get greater imprimatur than they deserve because they were extracted under torture.

So, without even going into the moral, ethical, and legal issues, we can (and should) reject torture as an authorized interrogation method because it doesn't do what it's reputed (among the ignorant) to do. It's one thing to break a man (or woman); it's another thing entirely to turn that break into useful, verifiable information, or even to find such information among the revelations one will get concerning cheating on that third-grade spelling quiz; even that presumes that the subject actually knows (and knows he/she knows) the sought-for information in the first place.