Torturous Cognitive Dissonance

Stephen Carter, Yale Law School professor (and not a right winger), disposes of the conventionally wise canard that “torture never works”:

Unless you happen to follow the German press—or unless, as I did, you happen to have taught a German law student interested in the subject of torture—you might have missed the tale of Magnus Gäfgen, the convicted child murderer currently suing the Hesse police for beating him and threatening worse in order to extract a confession. The Gäfgen story seems quite apropos now that, in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, our national debate over the use of torture has taken a bizarre turn, from whether torture is right or wrong to whether it ever works.

Back in 2002, Gäfgen kidnapped an 11-year-old boy, Jakob von Metzler, whom he then murdered. Without disclosing that Jakob was dead, Gäfgen demanded a ransom of €1 million from the child’s wealthy parents. He collected the ransom, and was arrested soon after. The police, who thought Jakob was still alive, demanded to know where he was hidden. Gäfgen refused to say. According to Gäfgen’s lawsuit, they beat him, then told him a torture specialist was being flown in, a man whose training would enable him to “inflict more pain on me than I had ever experienced.” At that point he confessed, telling the police that the boy was dead and where his body could be found.

Now, I am not endorsing what the authorities did in interrogating Gäfgen, but I do think it provides evidence—which should hardly be necessary—that, if the goal is to obtain information, torture sometimes works. Let me repeat that: If the goal is to obtain information, torture sometimes works…

[The] moral argument against torture on the proposition that it doesn’t work eventually starts to sound silly. We have created a peculiar cognitive dissonance, where we want all good things to be true at once: so our military forces and intelligence analysts are to be congratulated for their exemplary work in discovering the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and dispatching him, while, at the same time, we insist that none of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques had anything to do with producing any of the information that helped lead to his hiding place. But there is so much evidence to the contrary (including the words of Leon Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency) that this position is no longer seriously sustainable.

Torture is wrong for all sorts of reasons, from its affront to basic human dignity to its violation of fundamental human rights. Making a moral case is not difficult. The puzzling part is that so many people insist on joining the moral case (torture is wrong) to the empirical case (torture never works) even though the empirical case is unpersuasive. We ought to be adult enough to accept the possibility that a tool might exist that is wrong despite the fact that it is useful…

John McCain writes in the Washington Post that “torture” didn’t lead us to bin Laden. He says:

…Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that “the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information — including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.” That is false.

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.

This is really unconvincing. For one thing, “a detainee held in another country” means secret prisons, aka “rendition,” where we know “enhanced interrogation” methods were the norm.

Also, McCain refers to his personal experience of being tortured by the North Vietnamese, but the North Vietnamese weren’t torturing for information; they wanted American prisoners to appear in propaganda videos where they would denounce the American military campaign in Vietnam. In those cases, most POWs, including McCain I believe, eventually gave them what they wanted to hear. The Vietnamese didn’t care whether or not the prisoners believed what they said.

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