Torturing terrorists, and the English language

Whew! That’s a relief. As a signatory to the treaty banning torture, we’re not going to torture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

We’re just going to slap him around, pistol-whip him, deprive him of sleep, and make him stand for hours in agonizing positions until he tells us what we need to know (or maybe what we want to hear). Just to make sure that nothing gets in our way, we’ve carefully shipped him to a country that isn’t a signatory to the treaty

And if that doesn’t work on him, we can go to work on his children to see if that loosens his tongue. A little rough on the kids, I suppose, but that’s what they get for their bad taste in choosing parents. Maybe they’ll know better next time.

Unfortunately, unlike Abu Zubaydah, Mohammed wasn’t wounded in the process of being captured. That means we can’t “tease” him with narcotic pain-killers, giving him just a taste of relief before his body goes back to its natural agony to get him to talk.

The assertion that torture never works is an interesting piece of pious wishful thinking, but obviously false. Of course torture can produce some tactical benefits: some of what torture victims say is false, but some of it is true, and can be independently checked.

What the victim says is worthless as evidence — if Mohammed says that he was at a meeting with bin Laden and Saddam Hussein where Hussein ordered the 9-11 attacks there will be no reason to believe it — but it can still be useful practically. If he tells us where a bomb factory is or the name of a “sleeper” in the US or the number of a Swiss account we can go look. If he tells us about specific plans for future terrorist actions we can try to protect ourselves.

In addition to that sort of tactical advantage, the fact that we are known to be willing to use torture, if known about, will probably deter some people from joining, or working with, al-Qaeda.

No, the objection to torture isn’t that it’s useless; it’s that it’s wrong. In one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, Archie Goodwin says about some cops he watches slapping a suspect around, “After you’ve done that a few times, any self-respecting garbage can would be ashamed to have you in it.”

I’m prepared to listen — not very attentively, I’m afraid — to the argument that a given torture victim deserves it. My prejudice is that there are some things no human being deserves, and moreover that giving agents of the state the authority to decide that some human beings can be treated as objects is likely to blow back in undesirable ways on our attempt to run a self-governing society.

Whenever I hear some professor or politician defending the practice of torture I feel the way Lincoln said he felt when hearing slavery defended: I have a strong urge to see the practice tried out on its advocate.

(Perhaps oddly, I don’t regard the use of disinhibiting drugs such as scopolamine or sodium pentathol [the misnamed “truth serums”], which the US government is piously disclaiming, as being in the same category. I really don’t see the moral objection to using chemical rather than purely behavioral means in the attempt to override Mohammed’s will to remain silent; it’s the systematic coercive infliction of extreme suffering that strikes me as intolerable.)

Yes, I’m familiar with the freshman-ethics hypothetical about a captured terrorist who is known to have planted a bomb set to go off an hour from now under one of 100 hotels in a city. As the police chief, are you really going to let dozens of people die because you’re reluctant to twist the guy’s arm until he tells you which hotel? [Randy Balko quotes Alan Dershowitz on this hypo, and argues that it came up in real life several years ago in the case of another captured al-Qaeda operative.] And if your answer in that case is that you would commit, or authorize, the application of physical pressure to extract information, then where to draw the line must be a matter of practical judgment rather an absolute principle.

Maybe Mohammed is enough like the terrorist in that hypo to justify torture; I’m not fully persuaded, but I suppose I might be. (The fact that “a little bit of smacky-face” seems to be standard operating procedure on the prisoners at Guantanamo, most of whom probably don’t have anything very useful to say, illustrates the case for making some prohibitions absolute, which is the point of that example as it’s usually taught.)

[Even conceding that the decision about whether to torture Mohammed ought to reflect a balancing of consequences rather than the application of an absolute prohibition, I’d rather have that practical judgment made by a President who didn’t laugh when describing how a woman pleaded with him (unsuccessfully) to spare her life, and who didn’t go around making little jokes about how many of the enemy our forces had killed. Alas, the world is as it is, not as I’d like it to be.]

But even accepting for the moment that torture might sometimes be justified, there is something even more disgusting than torture, and without any of its practical benefits: playing word-games that make any means of inflicting suffering not involving an actual rack and red-hot pincers something other than torture. I hereby nominate the writer of the New York Times headline Questioning of Accused Expected to Be Humane, Legal and Aggressive for the newly-established Winston Smith Memorial Medal for Dishonest Language in the Service of Unspeakable Actions.

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: