Thinking About Torture

Or is it really all that it is cracked up to be?


The hyper-political confirmation hearings of Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales are not the best jumping off point for high-level thinking about human behavior and values, but after several years of proceeding on automatic pilot the nation will take what it can get.

First, dispense with the word games. The various legal opinions the Bush administration turned out on what has broadly become known as the torture topic were concerned with one thing: making sure that the Bush administration's treatment of detainees could not be taken as a violation of the Geneva Convention. The convention exists to prevent mistreatment of prisoners of war. The extent to which you think mistreatment constitutes torture is the extent to which you think the Bush administration was concerned about torture. All kinds of semantic games can be played on the topic but the bottom line remains that the Bush anti-terror team has operated under the notion that treating detainees in ways that prisoners of war could not legally be treated might be a good idea post-9/11.

This premise continues to escape any serious examination. For in addition to the rather mundane fact that the extra-legal status and treatment of terror detainees has not produced significant, actionable intelligence to anyone's knowledge, it may just be that playing rough is not a sound long-term strategy for the United States. In addition to being tactically ineffective, torture may be a bad grand strategy for the United States to pursue.

By way of comparison, consider the strategy undertaken by the British government during World War II with regard to cracking of German secret codes. The Ultra intelligence gleaned from breaching the German Enigma code was a vital part of the British war effort.

For years the story was that this secret was so important to the British war effort, Winston Churchill had allowed the city of Coventry to be bombed by a German attack he knew to be coming rather than jeopardize the long-term strategic value of Ultra by alerting the Germans to some sort of early warning of their attacks. The Germans would soon suspect something if they arrived over their targets only to find the British waiting for them and the population long gone.

More recent accounts hold that Churchill and the British high command did not have airtight intelligence on the Coventry raids of November, 1940. But it certainly appears that Churchill did have very good intelligence about German intentions during that time frame, which may have included warnings about impending air raids on London and other secondary targets. Such intelligence would fit the ticking time-bomb scenario that apologists for torture often concoct when seeking to make the case for extra-legal treatment of detainees.

This freshman-level line of thinking usually unfolds by positing some grave threat to innocent life "on U.S soil" that can only be thwarted by stress positions, sleep deprivation, mock execution, threats of drowning, you name it, escalating, one supposes to rubber hoses and electrodes if need be. Clearly, given the choice between doing such deeds and innocent dead, all right thinking people choose the deeds.

But as the Ultra example shows, preventing harm now might not be a sound long term strategy to win a protracted struggled. In other words, the torture apologists assume that preventing the immediate harm of innocents should be highest value of anti-terror policy. And perhaps they are absolutely correct. In fact, the protection of innocent American life might be the only legitimate goal United States policy.

However, consider for a moment that humane treatment of enemies of the United States might just be as big a strategic asset to the U.S. as the Ultra intelligence was to the British. That by consistently refusing to expose individuals to the whim of state power, especially to the point of making their bodies subject to whatever treatment the state deemed fit, the U.S. maintains a moral high ground that trumps all claims against it.

So perhaps playing rough is not a sign of strength or determination or will, but a sign of weakness and desperation. Further, the at-all-costs pursuit of short-term intelligence might make the long-term success of the anti-terror effort more difficult by eroding support for the U.S. worldwide. The vital thing to remember is that how the U.S treats its captives is not just a matter between a jailer his non-official prisoner; it is an issue for all humanity for all time.