Strong opinions, weakly held

A torture hypothetical

Some old friends and I were enjoying a spirited discussion of torture via email yesterday, and I presented them with a hypothetical that I thought I’d post here as well. It neatly bundles up all the reasons why torture is wrong. While the situation is hypothetical, Pete is a real life friend of mine who is a dentist in the Army Reserve Dental Corps. I forget what rank he is, but he’s an officer.

Let’s say that Pete is deployed to Iraq, and, while on the way to get a falafel sandwich, is captured by Iraqi insurgents who happen to be former members of the Iraqi secret police. Pete is a US Army officer, and the insurgents feel like they have nabbed a high value prisoner. They are concerned about future US air strikes killing their family members. They would like to know whether there are any plans for the US to bomb their neighborhood, and figure that Pete might be able to help them out.

Would it be wrong for them to torture Pete? As far as they’re concerned, he’s their best shot at keeping their families from getting blown up.

And what’s Pete’s best shot at not getting tortured? He can keep telling them that he’s only a dentist and he doesn’t know anything about military plans, but isn’t that exactly what someone trained to resist interrogation would say?


  1. Until we have an actual legal definition of “torture,” the whole discussion is kind of pointless. Because “torture” (in the colloquial sense) and interrogation are not the same thing.

    Would it be all right for the enemy to interrogate a capture US soldier? Of course. It would be idiotic for them not to. Would it be okay for them to start cutting off fingers and toes until he talks? No, clearly not. It’s in the middle, where interrogation includes practices that person A defines as torture (like verbal abuse, or sleep deprivation) but that person B does not that the whole thing gets muddy.

    Hey, whaddya know? There’s a bill in front of the Congress right now that would provide a legal framework to establish what is and what isn’t an acceptable interrogation technique. Seems like that’d be a pretty useful thing for us to have, huh?

  2. Thanks for the pro-administration spin, Jeff.

  3. Rafe,

    There is a line, I don’t know where it lies. I do know that America has historicaly treated combatants it captures far better than the enemy. That’s a traditition I would like to see continued. Of course, these days it’s hardly possible to treat those we capture worse than the enemy treats those they capture.

    Of course, shows like 24 and others really don’t help with the perception that the ends justify the means.

  4. One of the military advantages of having a reputation for humane treatment is that it helps tip the balance in the decision of fight to the death or surrender.

    Remember the mass surrenders of Dessert Storm? Those are much less likely to occur with the reputation that we now have of torturing and killing prisoners.

    For those who can not be persuaded by the moral issues, consider the practical results.

  5. Pete’s best shot, is to be in the service of a country that does not torture insurgents.



    Pretty good definition of torture in Article 1: (edited for readability)

    “…the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him information or a confession…”

  6. To expand on my earlier comment, my problem with the call for “clear standards” is that while the administrations claims that we do not torture, every bit of other documentation we have shows that we have applied forms of torture that would not fall within any legal gray area. Captives have been beaten, some to death. They’ve been frozen, suffered simulated drowning, sexually humiliated, threatened with dogs, and so forth and so on. Even the most liberal reading of the conventions against torture that we have signed would still classify these forms of interrogation as prohibited.

  7. I think all this “ambiguity” about the Geneva Conventions is nothing but a smokescreen. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld KNOW waterboarding is torture. They KNOW it’s illegal. What they’re really afraid of is the Red Cross interviewing the prisoners they have tortured and being exposed as the war criminals they truly are.

  8. Look, let’s be objective about this. Interrogation is the process of making somebody uncomfortable in order to get him to do what you want him to do. Answer questions, give up associates, whatever.

    There are degrees of discomfort. I think we can all agree about that. Right now it’s about 65 degrees outside, and it’s a little cooler in this room than I’d like. I’m a little uncomfortable.

    If somebody came in here and chopped off my foot, I’d be pretty damned uncomfortable.

    So. Degrees.

    Is it okay to make somebody uncomfortable in the process of interrogating him? I think we’d all agree that the answer is “Yes, but.” As long as you don’t go too far, it’s okay.

    How far is too far?

    That’s the point none of us can seem to agree on. Being beaten? Yes, that’s clearly going too far. Clearly.

    But having somebody point and laugh at your wingding? That’s not torture by any reasonable definition. Nor is being barked at by a dog or being kept in a cold room. Nor is having a wet towel wrapped around your head.

    Oh, sure. We can pad it in scary language. We can call it “sexual humiliation” or “being threatened by dogs.” We can call it “waterboarding” if you want. But it’s still just having a wet towel wrapped around your head.

    These things are not in the same category as having bones broken, or teeth removed, or appendages severed. They’re just not.

    Which of them should be prohibit legally? That’s not up to me. But trying to draw the line with fuzzy language using phrases like “severe suffering” and “offense on personal dignity” doesn’t get us any closer to sorting it all out. We need concrete rules that pop this debate out of the realm of personal opinion.

    You can call it “pro-Administration spin” if you want, but the truth is that it’s just the opinion of one confused, conflicted guy who happens to see merit on both sides of the question. That guy being me.

  9. Jeff – Torture wouldn’t be an issue if all the U.S. had done was “laugh at someone’s wingding.” This is an issue because dozens of people have died while in U.S. custody, because an innocent Canadian citizen was sent by the U.S. to Syria where he was tortured for a year, because numerous prisoners have been subjected to waterboarding. Waterboarding is NOT having “a wet towel wrapped around your head.”

    On top of that, intelligence professionals seem to agree that torture is counterproductive — the person tortured is likely to tell the torturer whatever they want to hear, just to stop the pain.

    It’s interesting that for 50 years the U.S. never found the language of the Geneva Convention “fuzzy.” It’s only now that we have engaged in war crimes ourselves that we feel a need to have the language “clarified.”

  10. These things are not in the same category as having bones broken, or teeth removed, or appendages severed. They’re just not.

    actually, from what I’ve heard and seen, a lot of people would probably prefer having a bone broken to extended waterboarding. It is supposed to induce terror and claustrophobia (wrong word probably but whatever is the word for fear of drowning/asphyxiation)

  11. Waterboarding is not being wrapped with wet towels. It is being strapped to a board, then having your mouth and nose immersed until you start to inhale water. A couple of the victims drowned. Its not a joke.

  12. Waterboarding is being placed on an inclined surface, like a gurney or a board, with your feet above the level of your head. Wet towels are then placed on your face, making it difficult for you to breathe.

    While I’m sure you could be immersed in a similar fashion, that’s not what waterboarding is. That would be a practice called, believe it or not, “dunking.” As far as I know, nobody has alleged that the US has employed dunking on any of our prisoners.

    The misperception about the technique dates back to an interview with the President where the reporter — I forget who it was, but it was one of the network guys — characterized it as an immersion technique. It isn’t.

    Incidentally, the reason they use an inclined board is to prevent water aspiration. With the lungs above the mouth, it’s highly unlikely that sufficient water could be aspirated to cause suffocation.

    Uncomfortable? Bet your last dollar on it. But believe it or not, it’s actually a Rube Goldberg machine of sorts engineered specifically to be intensely uncomfortable without actually being harmful.

    And yeah, Ted, I’m sure a lot of people would prefer to have their teeth pulled out than to be subjected to waterboarding. That’s kind of the whole point. The reason why the technique is sometimes used is to induce incredible fear while keeping to an absolute minimum the risk of actual physical harm.

    I’m not aware of any waterboarding-related deaths of prisoners in US custody. There very well may have been some; I’m hardly an expert and the fact that I haven’t heard of any means very little. Of the deaths of prisoners in our custody, one was from hypothermia after being doused and left in an unheated room overnight by an inadequately trained interrogator. Maybe that’s what you’re thinking of.

  13. According to numerous sources I find online (ie: ABC News), the United States military has considered waterboarding unacceptable torture since 1901, and has punished those engaged in it at least through the Vietnam war. In a cursory search I can’t find evidence of anyone having died from it as applied by U.S. agencies in the Iraq conflict, but I think that that’s secondary to the point that Jeff is trying to make.

    That point is: Does it help to gain accurate intelligence in an interrogation to convince the subject that he or she is in imminent danger?

    There are all sorts of ways to do this, some of them safely, some of them not so. I know some people that I could subject to things that I’d have no problem going to who’d instantly freeze up and go into panic mode. Does that help get useful information out of them?

    As we sink from principle into pragmatism, that seems to be the answer that nobody wants to give. Everyone’s off into “let’s talk about the definition of torture”, not “does fear of death work?”

    To use Rafe’s example, Pete’s best option in the threat of torture is to make shit up to give him more time and therefore more opportunity for escape or rescue. He has no assurances that he’s going to be uninjured whether or not he gives the information, but he’s been told that the bad feelings will go away if he tells them something. So he may as well make something up.

    Similarly, if you’re in U.S. custody at this point there’s no reason at all to believe you’re going to survive. No, I can’t find documented deaths from “waterboarding”, but Jeff mentioned a cooler environment as a fairly innocuous practice, however, sure enough, we have had detainees die from hypothermia during interrogation. Those incidents are easy to find.

    Find me one objective source that says that threats of bodily injury or death gives more valuable intelligence than false information and then we can have this discussion. Until then, even talking about anything more than bright lights, uncomfortable chairs and psychological trickery is just sadistic wankers trying to justify their own sick perversions by alleging things that can’t be proven.

  14. My moral compass says that any type of harsh interrogation is incorrect. It might make for great TV when a cop busts someone upside the head, but not in real life. You can make very specific cases for individiuals seem ok, like “WHAT IF HE HAD THE INFO TO NOT DETONATE A BOMB!”

    But you always assume somehow you can gaurantee the detainee will trust the interrogator enough to think it will stop. In your mind (Jeff), the US person doing this is in ‘The Right’. To the person being tortured this isn’t so clear.

    If you were detained by a foreign government, in say North Korea, and they started interrogating you with these techniques, would it be ok? No matter what you say, they won’t believe you. If you do have the information, when do you give it to them? And what if you are innocent? Think they will give in? What if you just think they will keep going till they kill you?

    There is a quote someone once said about it better that sixty guilty men should walk free than one innocent man be condemned. I’d like to think I still live in the country where that is true, and no foreign attack can remove that belief from me.

  15. Quillan wrote, “I’d like to think I still live in the country where that is true…”

    We don’t live in a country like that anymore, and haven’t since Sept. 12, 2001.

  16. Immersion of the nose and mouth does not require dunking, merely having water above the mouth and nose, as in using a dam of towels to ring the mouth and nose, followed by filling the created pocket with water.

  17. Dan wonders where the proof is that torture works.

    Consider the case of John Peters, the pilot of an RAF Tornado that was shot down over Iraq during the 1991 war. He was taken prisoner by the Iraqis and repeatedly beaten.

    He broke under interrogation. He told the Iraqis everything he knew.

    (I don’t know if Rafe does links in his comments, but you can get more by googling Frontline and “John Peters.”)

    The US and other NATO countries spend a lot of time and money teaching soldiers “R2I” techniques: resistance to interrogation. They wouldn’t bother if it were possible to “just make shit up.”

    Whether we like it or not, torture works.

    Which is why we’re even having this conversation in the first place. Here we have this wonderfully effective technique for getting information out of people who want very badly to keep secrets, and the only thing stopping us from using it is our own sense of right and wrong.

    I mean, think about it for a second. Why do we go to the trouble of concocting this ludicrously complex methods of interrogation? Why resort to keeping prisoners in cold rooms or putting wet towels on their faces or humiliating them or playing Christina Aguilera music at them when we could just beat them until their bones and wills break?

    Because, for all our faults, we’re trying really damn hard to be the good guys.

    As for the “six guilty men” thing, I agree totally. In fact, I entirely oppose capital punishment simply because that’s a precipice you can’t climb back to the top of once you’ve jumped off.

    But sometimes the transaction isn’t as simple as one guilty man going free instead of one innocent man being imprisoned. Sometimes it’s a question of one guilty man going free and dozens, hundreds or even (God help us) thousands of innocent people dying horribly.

    That makes the moral situation a whole lot less clear. At least to me.

  18. These days frontline combatants in the US military are encouraged not to try to withstand torture. It is pointless. This is a change from the requirements that POWs were held to in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

    We also know that some of the pilots who were shot down in 1991 were forced to lie about being tortured, ala Jessica Lynch. Their “torture wounds” were from ejection and landing. The same type of story made up by Bush41 that was recounted by the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador before Congress. The girl claimed to have seen Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait pull premature infants from incubators and dash them on the floor — even though she hadn’t been in Kuwait for six months before the invasion.

  19. The idea that torture is “wonderfully effective” is just utterly and completely wrong. And nobody is talking about guilty men going free anyway, rather the question is whether we should torture dozens or hundreds of people who may or may not know anything useful in order to possibly get truthful information that is beneficial to us.

  20. Okay, Jeff, I’m a bit dubious, but I’ll offer you for the moment that torture may give results from those who have information.

    Now, does it not give results from those who don’t have information?

    Otherwise it’s still worthless.

  21. Does torture actually work? Can’t find the link but the British recently revieved information gathered from tortured IRA prisoners. Seems that the information gathered from toture was less reliable than information gathered through verbal interrogation.

  22. Seems that the US declared waterboarding to be torture when it was used on Americans that the Japanese had captured in WWII.

  23. We live in shameful times

    The New York Times lays it on the line: Here’s what happens when this irresponsible Congress railroads a profoundly important bill to serve the mindless politics of a midterm election: The Bush administration uses Republicans’ fear of losing their …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


© 2019 rc3.org

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑