Torture? What Should We Be Willing To Do To Save Lives?

So on Fox News Sunday Michael Hayden, President Bush’s last CIA director from 2006 to 2009, said releasing the memos outlining terror interrogation methods emboldened terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.   Well, there are a few issues I have with Mr. Hayden.   First off, I am not a big fan of "Blind Loyalty", but, I am even less of a fan of "Blind DISloyalty".  As a very high level appointee, albeit not a Cabinet position, of the former President it is unseemly for him to be so blatently spreading this fear mongering bile in an attempt to smear President Obama and make his and his former bosses’ illegal acts appear critical in preventing some catastrophe.  However, it certainly isn’t surprising considering the way the former VP has been behaving in his first 100 days since leaving office.   That said, let’s actually look at his "logic".

First let’s look at the Emergency Case situation, also often referred to as the "Ticking Timebomb" scenario.  I think you know what I mean, “Suppose a bomb has been planted somewhere where it will kill many people if it goes off. Suppose we have the bomber in custody, the bomber refuses to say where the bomb is. We have no other way of either locating the bomb or safely removing people from the vicinity of the bomb.  Should we torture the bomber to locate the bomb?"  So let’s really look at this scenario.

The argument suggests that in circumstances where lives are at stake, and we have no other means at our disposal, we may, and should, torture a person if doing so produces information that would save lives. It assumes that torture is an effective means of gaining information and the pain and suffering inflicted on the individual tortured is of far less importance than the loss of benefit to those who will die if we do not torture. Therefore, we are not only morally justified in using torture, we must do so.

Such arguments also rely upon a sub-argument that is subsumed within the contrived details of the scenario itself. The implications of the sub-argument are that we know that the person we have in custody is responsible for the bomb and that they know where the bomb is located. In reality this is, of course, a fallacy. For example, in 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes, was shot dead by British security forces who believed they knew that he was a suicide bomber about to blow up a train in the London underground. He turned out to be a young Brazilian man on his way to work as an electrician. In the real world rather than the fantasy world of "Ticking Timebomb" scenario, and even with the best intentions, we cannot avoid error. Sometimes innocent people would be tortured. However, my interest is in the substantive argument so I shall leave the problem of torturing the innocent to one side.

Pro-torture arguments only get off the ground at all if, in fact , torture is an effective means of gaining information and if, in fact , gaining information under torture does produce information that will save lives. Many opponents of torture have rightly focused on rejecting the premise of this argument. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that torture is not an effective means of gaining useful information. For instance, observe the following: if torture produced reliable information then we would be obliged to acknowledge the existence of witches and the devil since thousands of people once confessed, under torture, to being witches and consorting with the devil.

We also have examples such as the Guildford four, who confessed under British police torture to being IRA bombers. Actually, their only crime was to be poor, Irish and in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact there is a great deal of research on torture in the real world that shows all sorts of interesting things. It indicates that there is a substantial difference in the behavior of ordinary criminals and people with ideological commitments (such as the suicide bomber and political extremist), that the innocent are far more likely to confess to things that have not done than the guilty are to confess to acts they have ACTUALLY committed, and that the pool of potential torture victims tends to expand.  Overwhelmingly, the conclusion of this research is that torture is NOT an effective means of gaining information, especially in the short term. This may seem counter-intuitive to people who have no actual experience with torture.

Secondly, how is the release of this information detrimental to our ability to defend America against extremists?  There is no new information in these memos.  All of this information was already available to everyone already.  As White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said in dismissing Hayden’s assertion that releasing the memos had undermined U.S. intelligence efforts by giving al Qaeda critical new information "One of the reasons the president was willing to let this information out was that already the information was out.  Go get the New York Review of Books. It’s there."