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Nov 09 2006

The fallacy of torture’s effectiveness

I have written before that the passage and signing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) means that the US, as a nation, has decided that it has accepted the idea that the government can arrest and detain and torture people indefinitely without giving them access to family, lawyers, or courts. Thus, in one stroke, the US has abruptly removed individual freedoms and protections that took years of hard struggle to attain.

It always amazes me that those who support these moves invoke fiction as a basis for their reasoning, often mentioning the TV show 24 hours. Although I have not watched that program, from the way it is invoked it appears that it regularly involves the hero Jack Bauer having to confront a ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario where he, in order to avert a major disaster, has to get crucial information from an individual who won’t talk. Bauer then tortures the person, the person reveals the information, and thus the day is saved. (Those who watch the show please correct me if my inferred impression is wrong.)

On a recent Real Time with Bill Maher program, Maher pointed out that with the passage of the MCA, the US government has now become identical with those reviled South American juntas where people just ‘disappeared’ and were never heard from again. Wall Street Journal editor Stephen Moore immediately sprang to the administration’s defense saying that he sees nothing wrong with shooting someone in the leg to get information, invoking Bauer again for support. He argues that what he calls ‘Jack Bauer justice’ is what the American people want. The fact that this may be true (as evidenced by the passage of the MCA) is not a cause for rejoicing.

Hillary Clinton had earlier opposed the MCA saying it “undermines the Geneva Conventions by allowing the president to issue executive orders to redefine what are permissible interrogation techniques. Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach?” But now, clearly feeling that she needs to be as barbarous as the current administration in order to have a chance of occupying the White House in the future, she is quoted as telling the New York Daily News “that the president should have “some lawful authority” to use torture or other “severe” interrogation methods in a so-called ticking-bomb scenario.” She has, in fact, fallen to that low level that she despised just a short while ago.

This ticking time bomb scenario is a favorite of those who seem to take actual pleasure in inflicting pain on others, such as Charles Krauthammer. The reason that such people invoke such fictitious scenarios is that they have little else going for them. Careful analysis of actual situations shows that torture is not only immoral, but it also does not work, and requires for its success on the simultaneous existence of multiple factors, each of which is unlikely by itself.

In the cover story of the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine, Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror dissects The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb.

He writes that this myth originated with the academic speculations of philosopher Michael Walzer and went largely unnoticed until resurrected recently by another torture advocate Alan Dershowitz.

McCoy points out that:

In the real world, the probability that a terrorist might be captured after concealing a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square and that his captors would somehow recognize his significance is phenomenally slender. The scenario assumes a highly improbable array of variables that runs something like this:
- First, FBI or CIA agents apprehend a terrorist at the precise moment between timer’s first tick and bomb’s burst.
- Second, the interrogators somehow have sufficiently detailed foreknowledge of the plot to know they must interrogate this very person and do it right now.
- Third, these same officers, for some unexplained reason, are missing just a few critical details that only this captive can divulge.
- Fourth, the biggest leap of all, these officers with just one shot to get the information that only this captive can divulge are best advised to try torture, as if beating him is the way to assure his wholehearted cooperation.

But this combination of factors is highly unlikely to occur. It is only after an event has occurred that people look back and see clearly the chain of events that led up to it and are able to unerringly “connect the dots”, to use a currently popular cliche. He points out that Zacarias Moussaoui was in captivity for weeks before 9/11 being desultorily questioned without any useful information being obtained, because the “FBI did not have precise foreknowledge of Al Qaida’s plot or his precise role.”

“After the event,” Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in her classic study of that other great U.S. intelligence failure, Pearl Harbor, “a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event, it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”

But suppose that this highly unlikely sequence of events does happen. In such cases does torture yield useful information? This will be examined in the next posting in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Meanwhile, in other elections. . .

In a less-watched election, those Ohio candidates favoring the teaching of evolution and opposed to introducing intelligent design ideas into the science curriculum won seats in the State Board of Education elections. This continues the losing slide, both legal and electoral, for intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates that began with the reversal in Dover, PA.

The losses for the IDC side follow similar defeats in the Kansas primaries. The Ohio pro-evolution candidates were supported by the group HOPE which stands for “Help Ohio Public Education, a group of scientists angered by the board’s flirtation with intelligent design, which courts have barred from science class.”

In the race that drew national attention, Tom Sawyer, a former Akron mayor and 16-year congressman, was beating incumbent Deborah Owens Fink nearly 2-1 for a board seat that covers Summit, Ashtabula, Portage and Trumbull counties.
. . .
Three other HOPE-backed candidates appeared headed for victory Tuesday: former state legislator John Bender of Avon and retired school teacher Deborah Cain of Canton were clinging to narrow leads, and incumbent Sam Schloemer of Cincinnati was winning handily.

But the group’s biggest target was Owens Fink, a University of Akron marketing professor. She was one of the most articulate proponents of a model lesson for 10th-grade biology teachers that called for a “critical analysis” of Charles Darwin’s widely held theory that life on Earth descended from common ancestors.

Fink apparently got less than 30% of the vote, which has to be considered a pretty devastating loss for an incumbent.

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