The Future of Torture

A thoughtful post from a friend of a friend has me thinking about the issue of torture. Is it permissible? Is it moral? Is it right?  Not quite the same questions, and I wrote a sort of a rambling reply to her about a framework for considering this unpleasant topic:

The situation is difficult indeed. May I offer three ideas for consideration?

First, harm being done. As you and others have noted, “enhanced interrogation techniques” encompasses a number of different techniques, though in most peoples’ minds the term is synonymous with waterboarding. So, we can focus on that.

Let’s imagine a future (not very long from now) during which we can electronically stimulate a person’s brain to make them fear for their lives, but not actually suffer any physical harm whatsoever.  Would that be considered torture?  It might be, to some, but this number would be less than is currently opposed to waterboarding.

Now we go a little further, and induce in someone’s brain a feeling that it is good to cooperate and provide the requested information. They do not feel fear, do not suffer harm, but have been electronically encouraged in a way a little bit like a truth serum.  There are no after-effects (other than potentially saved lives). Is that torture?  We’re not that far from this now.  (I am “in the business” so to speak of direct brain/machine interfaces, and am writing technical proposals on the topic now.)

Consider that, in the main, waterboard actually does little physical harm, and generally none at all. It is traumatic enough, but uncountable millions of people who have actually been tortured would be delighted to be waterboarded instead. And, as noted above, it has long been part of our own military training.

Second, effectiveness. Some have complained that, under duress, people will say anything to stop the process. While this is true, it is ineffective — the people doing the interrogation are familiar with the situation, and have amassed often more information than the subject himself knows — except for certain specific details.

Lies offered to make the questioner go away are quickly (usually instantly) recognizes as such, and the effect is the opposite of what the subject wanted. He is quickly motivated to find something true to say, even if he does not reveal everything he knows. It is rare indeed that lies offered as false trails hold up for any period of time — the information obtained from EIT is generally of high quality and veracity, limited by the knowledge of the subject.  (Usama bin Ladin’s driver will know people, but generally not many operational details, as an example.)

Third, appearances. Many are concerned that we will (or do) appear barbaric to our peers, because the modern world cannot accept torture. This process is problematic: It lumps all of this under “torture” as you noted, and it assumes that others do not practice it. I think the evidence has shown clearly that countries from South America to the Middle East to Europe to Asia still maintain truly barbaric practices, as much as they like to condemn the US.

And the “modern world” isn’t, yet, necessarily.  Consider a time, a generation or a century from now, in which it might be considered “barbaric” to ever confine anyone against his or her will for any reason at all. To such a view, all of our jails would be lumped together as “torture chambers” ignoring — as the current crop does — just how horrific real torture truly is and was. The Death of a Thousand Cuts is no longer practiced, but a hundred other techniques are that end in the questioner’s miserable, agonizing death, or his desire for it as improvement or escape.

We cannot escape being called barbaric, no matter what we do. So we must search ourselves, and our own understanding and moral teachings, to decide what is the right thing to do in defense of our nation.

These EIT procedures were rarely applied — a handful of people over a period of several wartime years. And they had been reviewed by Democrats and Republicans alike and approved of — a situation that only changed when the issue could be used politically.

Our own thinking here must ignore politics, and focus on what is right to the best of our ability. This is what you have done, and I simply offer some additional points that might give you more, so to speak, Food for Thought.

Best wishes!

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle