Sadism, Not Substance,
Behind Torture Advocacy

by , January 27, 2009

It is hard for me to imagine the staffs of National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page actually, personally, physically torturing somebody, though a few might overcome their inherent wussiness and be able to do it. Whether they would be able to do it themselves or not, however, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that they strongly believe that some people need to be abused. It’s also difficult to credit the notion that this belief does not involve a certain degree of sadism, if only vicarious.

How can I say such a thing? The semi-rational justifications for torture they employ in fact have no substance to them. The first scenario is some variation on having a terrorist in custody who knows the whereabouts of a bomb that’s about to go off in an hour or so, killing thousands or tens of thousands of people. Wouldn’t you torture such a person to get the truth out of him? And if you’d authorize torture in that situation, you’ve acknowledged that a blanket ban on torture isn’t practical, prudent, or wise, since there is at least one instance in which you would use it.

The trouble with this scenario is that while it’s the kind of thing a bunch of college students sitting around drinking and perhaps partaking of other substances might come up with as a thought experiment, there is no known instance of it having happened. The likelihood of it ever happening this way outside of a movie script or spy novel is low to the vanishing point.

The second scenario is having a highly placed terror suspect who knows something about plans for future attacks. Would you think about waterboarding him to soften him up so you could get information that might foil future attacks? Any number of people, including in the last few days the Journal‘s editorial page, have claimed that’s what happened with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the presumed “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks. They waterboarded him once, and he couldn’t wait to spill details of planned future attacks, all of which our crack security services prevented. Of course nobody who claims to be in the know on this has offered any details on just which attacks were foiled, but we’re not supposed to let that little detail induce a hint of skepticism.

Torture may be distasteful, but it works. Don’t you watch 24?

To which the obvious reply is: Don’t you realize Jack Bauer is a fictional character in a fictional set of stories whose scripts are not necessarily required to conform to reality?

All the claims abut what KSM spilled after being waterboarded are vague. We have heard nothing specific as to planned attacks (which would have been changed once others knew he was in custody anyway), organizational information, or the identification of previously unknown al-Qaeda members. I think we can be pretty sure that if they had more specific information they would have leaked it or announced it long ago.

One problem with all this lusting after torture is that there is no evidence that torture gets you reliable information. This is not to deny that there might be reliable anecdotes of instances in which some kind of torture has produced reliable intelligence. But it’s a hit-and-miss proposition in which torture is likely to produce good information in a tiny minority of instances, if that.

The professional interrogators I have talked to say that taking somebody’s clothes off and rendering him or her naked is a fairly effective method of speeding up an interrogation, but the other techniques are more likely to backfire than to produce reliable information. When someone is being tortured – put in great pain or fear – they tell me, he or she will say anything to get it to stop, with the mostly likely “anything” being what they calculate the interrogator wants to hear. That may or may not be the truth, but it’s just as likely to be a lie. The best way to get at the truth is gradually to win the detainee’s confidence, which seldom happens in a single session.

Sorry. Hard work and skill are the keys to success in almost every endeavor. Shortcuts seldom work, and it’s as true in interrogation as in most other activities.

It’s worth remembering that the torture techniques the U.S. decided to authorize were reverse-engineered. The SERE courses were designed to train U.S. special forces and other personnel to resist the kinds of techniques that had been encountered in the Korean War and other Cold War encounters, including Vietnam. But those torture or torture-like techniques were not designed to elicit reliable information. They were designed to get prisoners to confess to various things most U.S. military people would regard as untrue – that they were agents of a sinister international imperialist endeavor that systematically exploited poor people and operated on behalf of evil capitalist evildoers.

In other words, the techniques were not designed to get a detainee to say what he thought was true, but to get him to say things he thought were untrue – or, if accompanied by really skillful and sympathetic interrogation techniques, to get him to believe at some level they just might be true. The torture techniques were not designed for intelligence-gathering purposes but for propaganda purposes.

So how likely is it that techniques designed to get a prisoner to say what he believes to be untrue will get him to spill what he believes to be true?

What I’m arguing is not based simply on theory. The elements of the military that have studied interrogation and torture come to similar conclusions, acknowledging that the matter hasn’t been studied closely in about 50 years since the military was committed to using non-torture interrogation techniques, but that most of what is known about torture is that it yields notoriously unreliable information.

In short, the premise that torturing somebody will yield reliable intelligence is so shaky that there must be other reasons for insisting so stubbornly that the better standards and traditions of the military (let alone of a society that aspires to be civilized) should be abandoned in order to authorize it. The case for torture is so attenuated that it is difficult not to believe that something like sadistic impulses, whether vicarious or not, are at play.

So did the Bush era yield policies – and we have discovered that they came from the top rather than being requested by interrogators in the field – grounded in sadism and not much else? We may not have enough evidence to be as sure of such a conclusion as we would be of a proof in geometry, but a great deal of the evidence surely points in that direction.

Perhaps, then it is not such a surprise that various commentators are so upset that President Obama has issued orders that interrogators in all agencies stick to the Army Field Manual guidelines for interrogation. Although a few of the torture advocates have been clever enough to make the case in ways that can be construed as rational – a little torture here and there could save many American lives and prevent incalculable damage – the real reasons for wanting to authorize torture are quite possibly much less rational, rooted in psychological tendencies and lodged firmly in the reptilian portions of the brain, virtually immune to mere reason.

That might explain also what is otherwise a rather puzzling phenomenon. Conservatives and Republicans are howling not just over the limitation of torture but the closing of the Guantanamo prison. Can it possibly be that they have made a political calculation that their best chance for gaining back power from the Democrats who have trounced them so decisively the last couple of years is to let it be known that they are on the side of indefinite detention and torture? Can they possibly believe that this is what a majority of the American people want to hear from political leaders? Stick with us? We’ll be sure to preside over the abandonment of what is best and most admirable in American traditions? We’ll make sure the United States tortures people? Is that a winning platform?

Perhaps it is, though I refuse to believe it. If positions in favor of torture are not taken because of a political calculation that they would be electorally advantageous, however, and if a reasonably informed analysis concludes that torture is not effective as a way to obtain reliable information, there must be deep-rooted, far less rational reasons for otherwise intelligent people to be so wedded to the proposition that torture is an essential tool in the “war on terrorism.” Whether it is sadism, childhood memories of powerlessness that need to be countered by embracing power, or some other essentially psychological phenomenon, it is surely not a strictly rational position to take. A rational analysis would yield the opposite conclusion, that torture is to be avoided not only because it provides a rationale for opposing forces to torture our military, but because it just doesn’t work.

So don’t be surprised if rational argumentation doesn’t work with some of these people. Opinions not rooted in a rational process can seldom be uprooted through mere argumentation.

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