Steve Teles spells out the lesson of Abu Ghraib

Using a little bit of torture is like using a little bit of heroin: easier said than done.

Steve Teles of Brandeis writes:

I think this shows what the basic reason for a norm against torture is. It isn’t that, under some very specific conditions, it might not be acceptable (the whole bus bomb in front of a school hypothetical).

It’s that in institutions where there is very little transparency, very bad people under confinement, and absolute control over such people, the temptation to torture is enormous. There is a deeply sadistic temptation in human nature–in all of our nature.

There is something in human nature that likes the complete control of another, the ability to inflict pain and suffering. This is exacerbated when the torturer feels moral superiority to the one being tortured. It is precisely in order to control this very deep temptation that the norm against torture exists.

We choose to foreswear torture in cases where it might be justified in order to control it in the much larger number of cases in which it is not. Once this norm gets loosened, the temptation to use it in order to facilitate intelligence-gathering becomes very strong. And once it becomes used regularly for this purpose, it becomes very easy to start using it for purely sadistic reasons–the torturers start realizing that they enjoy it.

If the pictures from the prison suggest anything, it’s that the Americans soldiers seemed to be enjoying themselves. I think before we start

attributing very specific blame (as at some point we must), we should reflect on the fact that the temptation that the torturers gave into is not

some exotic, unimaginable emotional state, but one that’s all too easy to imagine in ourselves, under the right conditions. Torture is as widespread

in human history, and across nations and institutional contexts, because it is not exotic. And so the possibility was real enough that those in control in Iraq, especially given the already damaged public image of the occupation, that they should have taken extraordinary measures to prevent it, even at the loss of some intelligence-gathering gains.

Right. And notice that no one in power has, so far, proposed re-thinking the “little bit of smacky-face” that we have allowed ourselves to inflict on our captives since 9-11.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: