Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The purpose of Torture

In The Lesser Evil, Michael Ignatieff argues that torture is a nihilistic political choice that results in irrevocable harm for the torturer and the tortured (see 136 - 143). Since it is the ultimate violation of a human being and the ultimate unlimited use of public authority against an individual, Ignatieff argues against liberal democracies employing it as a tactic in the War on Terror.

A good, clear explanation of Ignatieff's ideas come fom Julie Sanchez. In response to The 2004 CIA Inspector General Report on Torture, especially the section in which interrogators tortured a prisoner by threatening to kill the prisoner's children, Sanchez writes:
I guess what especially turns my stomach here is that the idea wasn’t just to inflict mental anguish on a presumably odious man in order to extract information. It was to inflict that pain by exploiting, as a weakness, whatever flicker of nobility or love remained in an otherwise wretched soul. It was a method of torture that would have been effective only because and to the extent there was something human left in him. Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but every cell in my body is telling me this is sick and wrong.

There should not be much else to say on this topic though I doubt as if there will be a full review of what occurred. Ever.


Oxymoron said...

This reminds me of Paulo Freire, who says that oppression is a "dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress."

While many people believe that only prisoners are dehumanized by torture, Freire reminds us that people dehumanize themselves when they dehumanize others.

p-duck said...

Just a little reminder that war is inherently dehumanizing, oppressive, and torturous to those involved. I've read quite a bit about torture during WWII (drawing a blank on books now) and do know that the torturers also walk away damaged and scarred from their experiences. Theorists, as Oxymoron and Solon note, have also weighed in heavily on the debate. We can debate all we want because we're removed from the situation. I'm not comfortable taking a pro-torture stance by any means, but I am not finding myself sickened by the threats against the prisoner's family. Threats, after all, are words. Words with serious power of course, but mere threats. The insurgency, however, carries out such threats and routinely exploits civilians and their families for use as suicide bombers. The insurgency doesn't make threats, they act (ask Mr. P-duck to tell you some storie). Asking a prisoner to 'please' reveal information is not effective. Are there any easy answers in this debate? No.

Rather than be sickened and disheartened by the emotional torture inflicted upon the prisoner, I'm sickened that we even need to have this discussions. Wouldn't it be easier if we all just got along? (cue "Imagine")

solon said...

There must be something in between torturing prisoners to obtain intelligence and asking them please to obtain intelligence.

The case of Khalid Sheik Mohammed is instructive of this point. Mohammed is the alleged mastermind of the September 11th attacks. During the first two years of his capture, he went from refusing to answer to cooperating. The question remains: why did he change his position.

Obsidian Wings has an interesting take on the situation. Defenders of the administration claim that torture works because of Mohammed. In his first month of capture, Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. Those close to the situation who were able to monitor the situation and who have a vested interest in the protection of those who carried out the waterboarding, say that that Mohammed cooperated after wateroarding but it is unclear as to what the time frame is between being waterboarded and providing lectures on Al Qaida.

As the author as Obsidian Wings notes, it is a good thing there was no ticking time bomb. The author also asks if it was in fact the 183 time to "break" the prisoner. Mohammed talked after he was waterboarded but no one knows that information, whether good or bad, useful or useless, was provided.

The author at OW also note that the interrogators received their best information when they established a rapport with Mohammed and exploited his intellectual vanity. This anecdote seems to be consistent with other interrogating experts who believe that the best information develops not through torture but through traditional interrogation techniques. Once the interrogators know the subject, they are better able to obtain valuable information by knowing the weakness of the subject.

These techniques do not involve torture and they do not involve stating please help us.

p-duck said...

I read a similiar article that discussed the uncertainty of the effectiveness of waterboarding in the interrogation (or torture) of Mohammed. Since so many "techniques" were used on him it's difficult to determine which ones were most effective. Mohammed himself states in an interview that the waterboarding was not efffective, and he seems to take pride in suggesting that he provided false information after such sessions.

A difficult reality though is that sometimes the interregators may find that the "weakness of the subject" involves threats against his family, his person, etc.

Again, I am by no means pro-torture. The stories of sleep deprivation, waterboarding, etc are horrifying.

More later... I'm wiped out at the moment.