Asking The Wrong Question About Torture

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In 1958 a communist French newspaper editor sympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence called Henri Alleg published “The Question”, a short account of his interrogation under torture by French paratroopers:

“The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments.

I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save me from suffocation… three times I again experienced this insupportable agony. In extremis, they let me get my breath back while I threw up the water. That last time, I lost consciousness.”

Despite being water-boarded, subjected to electric shocks, burned, beaten, and drugged with pentothal, Henri Alleg did not give his captors the information they were after – the name of the individual who had hidden him from the authorities.

Alleg’s account of his treatment heavily influenced the public backlash against the French government’s policies, this in turn ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Fourth Republic. In Algeria, the brutal methods of the French colonial forces drove new recruits to the FLN in droves and by 1962 the French had lost the struggle and Algeria was independent.

I mention all this because in the past week the old debate about the efficacy of torture has resurfaced in the wake of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs.

There has been frenzied speculation in the media that intelligence gained by the use of water-boarding may have helped to pinpoint bin Laden’s hideout.

Partisans of torture, like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, have pounced on this possibility as vindication of their ‘hard-line’ position.

However, we should note the snippets of information allegedly obtained by coercion were demonstrably insufficient to lead the Bush administration to bin Laden. So, it’s hardly the magic bullet its proponents claim.

Furthermore, the fact that the US discontinued the use of water-boarding as long ago as 2005 and that techniques outlawed by the US Army Field Manual on Interrogation have been banned by Executive Order since January 2009 suggests that the loss of these coercive techniques did not impede the hunt for bin Laden in any significant way.

The commentariat has been barking up the wrong tree. There is no evidence that in this instance torture has been in any way indispensable.

Indeed, professional interrogators like Matthew Alexander of the US Air Force and the CIA’s Glenn Carle contend that a more traditional non-coercive approach might have actually gained better information by eliciting cooperation rather than simply compelling speech.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told Time magazine earlier this month that hardened terrorists “are like everyone else. There are very few that have not in some way cooperated for some period of time.” The law enforcement approach works.

The real story is just how damaging our flirtation with torture has been and how little we have gained from it. The record shows that some people talk, and some don’t. However, we pay a high price for the information we tear from the lips of those on the rack.

When we resort to torture we become criminals, and the distance between those who commit acts of terrorism and ourselves diminishes. We cannot stand credibly for the powerful democratic values that have revolutionized the Arab world this past spring when we stoop so low.

In the end torture never works. It failed the Nazis, it failed the right-wing dictatorships of Latin America, and it failed the left-wing dictatorships of Eastern Europe. Yet, much like a road traffic accident, it still seems to extert a powerful attraction over those with a morbid frame of mind and little faith in human nature.

In his foreword to “The Question” the great existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:

“Whispered propaganda would have us believe that ‘everybody talks’, and this ignorance of human nature excuses torture.”

The reality, as Henri Alleg’s account reminds us, is that torture is as uncertain a method for gaining information as anything else. The only thing we can guarantee that torture will produce is torturers, and, if history teaches us nothing else, it is that torturers never prosper.

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18 thoughts on “Asking The Wrong Question About Torture

  1. Thank you for this insightful article. Tellingly, confessions obtained through unlawful coercion (including torture) are inadmissible in criminal trials in the U.S. Largely because such confessions are deemed unreliable.

  2. we've become an evil empire, no better than thosse the authorities (ha) told us to hate and kill.

  3. Thank you for this insightful article. Tellingly, confessions obtained through unlawful coercion (including torture) are inadmissible in criminal trials in the U.S. Largely because such confessions are deemed unreliable.

  4. we’ve become an evil empire, no better than thosse the authorities (ha) told us to hate and kill.

  5. We all know about these issues and have heard repeatedly from AI and other HR organizations about same. But, what action are the UN, AI, and other HR organizations taking apart from writing on blogs as this or just having discussions with the GOUSA? If it was a third world country, we would have seen you go to UN and ask for economic sanctions and military intervension. But, why not file the same kind of action against the government of USA? Why not ask for economic sanctions to USA?? This only showcases the double standards of the UN & the HR organizations including AI.

    Anyways, my view is that it is required to get information. Specially when we are living in the days of Terrorism. It is not like war between 2 countries – Terrorists have no boundaries and you need to get rid of them – I don't pur Terrorists under the category of "Human". They cannot be human with the acts they carryout – so inhumane and they should not be treated human.

  6. We all know about these issues and have heard repeatedly from AI and other HR organizations about same. But, what action are the UN, AI, and other HR organizations taking apart from writing on blogs as this or just having discussions with the GOUSA? If it was a third world country, we would have seen you go to UN and ask for economic sanctions and military intervension. But, why not file the same kind of action against the government of USA? Why not ask for economic sanctions to USA?? This only showcases the double standards of the UN & the HR organizations including AI.

    Anyways, my view is that it is required to get information. Specially when we are living in the days of Terrorism. It is not like war between 2 countries – Terrorists have no boundaries and you need to get rid of them – I don’t pur Terrorists under the category of “Human”. They cannot be human with the acts they carryout – so inhumane and they should not be treated human.

  7. When you torture, you don't stop a human from crying out.

    You stop the human cry inside yourself.

    **** ****

    When do you torture ?

    When you are isolated from a People.

    When you're in the dark about what's going on with them.

    When you stop learning from them .

    When you invade them so you can't befriend them.

    Marcus Lewis is an army interrogator & interrogation instructor.

    He says one of the chief results of torture is blowback from the people whose people you torture.

    That is, the people you have colonized.

    He says he can't count the number of times he's met detainees who said they rose up against the Americans because of the American practice of torture.

    My aims are opposed to Lewis'.

    i don't give him the right to interrogate the people his army garrisons.

    But i agree with him that torture raises up against you the people you patrol & garrison & settle out.

    **** ****

    Torture sends you upon paths that end with you completely lost.

    Both you & your victim.

    Think of the torture of Abu Zubaydah in Guantanamo.

    He was mentally unbalanced to begin with, this unfotunate brother.

    With torture he began to pour out whatever his tormented soul felt would stop the agony.

    As a result he gave out so many false alarms even his tormentors began to live in dread of the next time he'd send them up hill & down dale on another tortuous trail.

    **** ****

    Want to stop the terrorists ?

    Offer them tobacco.

    & get out of their country.

    For you live in terror of them because you went into their country.

    If you had not gone there, you would not be afraid of them.

  8. When you torture, you don’t stop a human from crying out.

    You stop the human cry inside yourself.

    **** ****

    When do you torture ?

    When you are isolated from a People.

    When you’re in the dark about what’s going on with them.

    When you stop learning from them .

    When you invade them so you can’t befriend them.

    Marcus Lewis is an army interrogator & interrogation instructor.

    He says one of the chief results of torture is blowback from the people whose people you torture.

    That is, the people you have colonized.

    He says he can’t count the number of times he’s met detainees who said they rose up against the Americans because of the American practice of torture.

    My aims are opposed to Lewis’.

    i don’t give him the right to interrogate the people his army garrisons.

    But i agree with him that torture raises up against you the people you patrol & garrison & settle out.

    **** ****

    Torture sends you upon paths that end with you completely lost.

    Both you & your victim.

    Think of the torture of Abu Zubaydah in Guantanamo.

    He was mentally unbalanced to begin with, this unfotunate brother.

    With torture he began to pour out whatever his tormented soul felt would stop the agony.

    As a result he gave out so many false alarms even his tormentors began to live in dread of the next time he’d send them up hill & down dale on another tortuous trail.

    **** ****

    Want to stop the terrorists ?

    Offer them tobacco.

    & get out of their country.

    For you live in terror of them because you went into their country.

    If you had not gone there, you would not be afraid of them.

  9. Ahhh… if only someone of your infinite wisdom was incharge prior to 9/11.

    Had we only given radical islamic jihadist terrorists TOBACCO… this all could have been avoided.

  10. And people living in Afghanistan for example – were victims of repressive – don't give a damn about human rights – radicals, al-qaeda and Taliban LONG before any U.S. presense in Afghanistan.

    It is the terrorists that needed to be booted out.

  11. Want to stop the terrorists? Get out of "there" country? So the terrorists own it? Not the non-terrorist innocent civilians?

  12. @a.savage: Why stop at giving the jihadis tobacco? How about some after-shave (although they're mainly bearded types) or comfortable shoe or a nice new hat?

    I said earlier how Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet hoped that it [the internet] would lead to "all the world's knowledge could be discoverable."

    After participating on the AI blog, I can only conclude that we see concrete proof that "all the world's idiots have been discovered."

  13. Ahhh… if only someone of your infinite wisdom was incharge prior to 9/11.

    Had we only given radical islamic jihadist terrorists TOBACCO… this all could have been avoided.

  14. And people living in Afghanistan for example – were victims of repressive – don’t give a damn about human rights – radicals, al-qaeda and Taliban LONG before any U.S. presense in Afghanistan.

    It is the terrorists that needed to be booted out.

  15. Want to stop the terrorists? Get out of “there” country? So the terrorists own it? Not the non-terrorist innocent civilians?

  16. @a.savage: Why stop at giving the jihadis tobacco? How about some after-shave (although they’re mainly bearded types) or comfortable shoe or a nice new hat?

    I said earlier how Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet hoped that it [the internet] would lead to “all the world’s knowledge could be discoverable.”

    After participating on the AI blog, I can only conclude that we see concrete proof that “all the world’s idiots have been discovered.”