The Case for Torture? It's the Least Worst Option

Tuesday, May 17, 2011 - 11:51 AM

There has been recent debate over whether isolation cells in "Supermax" prisons should be classified as torture. (Flickr user ewarwoowar (cc: by-nc-sa))

One big thing that seems to be missing from much of the national dialogue over torture that has been all over the media lately is that we know so much more about its use by our military and intelligence forces than we ever have.

I'm not sure if people just aren't familiar with its use in history, or whether they ignore such on purpose, but the use of torture has a long history, is actually the norm with wars all over the world, torture methods are much less dangerous than used in the past, and as much as opponents would like it to be otherwise, it has been proven to be quite effective under certain circumstances.

There are two major talking points behind the argument against the use of torture in gaining information from suspects (or otherwise bad guys) who have been caught. There is the moral argument, that purposefully harming someone who is in custody, and as such not a threat, is morally reprehensible.

Most, myself included, would agree with that (this is an aside, but this is essentially why I don't think the death penalty is acceptable). The other justification is "torture produces unreliable information". This just doesn't hold water. It would make sense if it went "torture sometimes produces unreliable information", but that isn't what is being said.

The fact of the matter is the Allies got a heck of a lot of useful information using torture in World War II, and if you don't think clandestine services use torture, you're really fooling yourself. That is what Block Ops are - things we'll never know about, and they know what so many people in this debate aren't willing to admit. They know that it does work in some cases - specifically in cases where information needs to be gotten in a short period of time, and can be verified.

One of the more infamous examples of this was how the Allies were able to trick Germany into positioning it's forces far away from the planned landing zone of D-Day, largely through turning German agents in Britain who had been captured, tortured and made to feed false information to the German intelligence service. Was it wrong of the Brits to torture those 19 German spies, when it led to saving the lives at least tens of thousands of allied troops? Would not torturing 19 German spies be worth extending World War Two by months, which is likely had the Allies not been able to capture that beachhead and began taking back European soil?

Taken in and of itself, torture is clearly wrong. But what if someone you have captured knows time sensitive information that could save lives is it acceptable to try torture? Is it only acceptable if it DOES save lives in the end, and wrong if it doesn't? Is it acceptable if a lot of lives are at stake, and not if only a few are? Is it acceptable when it is children, or civilians and not soldiers?

I know I'd say it was worth it, right or wrong, if torture did lead to saving of several innocent lives... absolutist moral certainty is worthless in the face of the value of saving innocent human lives. But there is no way to know what will happen once that decision is made to cross that line. You can't know whether the information you might get will help accomplish anything. If the person being tortured is strong, prepared and clever, it might even lead to something worse happening.

To me this seems very similar to any situation where people other than intended target of a military action might get caught up in the crossfire. If you would only make an assault, like the one on the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed recently, when the risk of innocents was next to nothing, we'd never make any headway in the war against terrorist groups. Is the likelihood that some innocents will die in a raid against important terrorist leaders not worse than incurring short term suffering on someone who you have a high level of confidence in thinking they are withholding information from you that would save the lives of innocents, or American soldiers?

Torture may never be morally acceptable, but the choices that people have available to them aren't always between clear cut good and bad. I'd rather have waterboarding a terrorist on my conscience than not doing so and watching people die because of it. Under rare circumstances like that torture doesn't magically become good, it just is the least worst option.

Solomon Kleinsmith is a nonprofit worker, serial social entrepreneur and strident centrist independent blogger from Omaha, Nebraska. His website, Rise of the Center, is the fastest growing blog targeting centrist independents and moderates. He is currently collaborating with other centrist independent and moderate bloggers on a news aggregation and social networking site, and is always looking for ways to help the independent groundswell as more and more people become disaffected with the two major


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Comments [2]

Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Solomon -

Did you catch any of the re-broadcast of 'The War' playing on PBS stations recently? During the Battle for Guadalcanal, American marines came across the bodies of other marines who had been caught and tortured and left for the Americans to find. The veteran being interviewed didn't recall taking any Japanese prisoners being taken after that point. There just weren't any.

Using torture on field soldiers is stupid. It takes away any incentive for decent treatment of your own men if captured. Using torture on spies or other officers produces information of dubious value. Eventually, they 'break' and tell you whatever you want to hear - the moon is made of cheese - in order to get the torture to stop.

Proper questioning by a trained interrogator produces just as much intelligence of far more value more quickly.

May. 19 2011 09:19 PM
Jack from Nebraska

Solomon, you've now debased yourself to the level of torture apologetics, but your play-acting of reluctance is not convincing.

First off, you have your facts wrong. You have no evidence that the British tortured German spies. You simply make an unsupported claim that amounts to "everybody knows that they all did it."

But the actual recorded history is very different from your ignorant folklore:

For you, the ends justify the means. The Germans could have made the same argument, that their torture of Allied prisoners could have possibly prevented the incineration of tens of thousands of civilians in the firebombing of Dresden, had they acquired the details of the bombing plan.

This moral calculation is indistinguishable from your own fictitious version of history. When you approve of torture, you approve of torture being used against your side. There's no getting around that.

Beyond the simple moral repugnance, your argument teeters on a logical fallacy -- the fallacy of the false dilemma: if we don't torture, something bad will happen.

This truly reveals what a shallow thinker you are. You've reduced yourself to torture apology based on a logical fallacy, revisionist history, and crass consequentialism.

You also employ a straw-man argument to cast the other side as absolutist when paraphrasing what you believe others say about the unreliability of torture. Do you know what "unreliable information" means? It means the degree of accuracy of information compared to your confidence in its veracity is low, not that its 100% WRONG.

Some legitimately-obtained (i.e. by not using torture) information doesn't pan out, and this miss rate contributes to the overall assessment of the "reliability" of information derived by these legal means. When compared to that of torture, according to people who actually have been in intelligence and conducted interrogations, torture is unreliable. Hence the reason they call it "unreliable."

Moreover, John McCain, a man who himself WAS TORTURED, explained that it creates a distorted incentive to tell your torturers whatever you think they want to hear, true or not -- literally anything to make the pain stop. False confessions and made-up information are invented in those exasperated moments of pure terror and pain. That's why it is unreliable. Stop misrepresenting and then chastising others for your own failure to correctly understand the meaning of words.

There already exist legal means for dealing after the fact with the possible use of torture in the fabled (and thus-far fictitious) "ticking time bomb" hypothetical scenario.

Finally, the perverse irony of your torture apologetics on a blog called "Its a Free Country" shall not go unmentioned.

May. 18 2011 07:42 PM

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