Torture Should Be Accounted For

Torture is among the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It should never be excused, it should never go unpunished. It is not about who the tortured are, or what the tortured know. It is not about what they have done, what they believe, or whether they would do the same. It is about who we are, and how human beings should be treated. It is about our humanity, that is all.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Torture Temptation

What I find most remarkable about America's debate regarding torture -- beyond the fact that such a debate could even be necessary in America -- is the continual recourse of both proponents and opponents to the question of whether torture works. I can't think of any other illegal behavior -- not murder, not rape, not kidnapping, not assault -- that receives this kind of rhetorical makeover. When a murder has been committed, you don't hear people agonizing over whether killing can never, ever be justified. When someone has been raped, people don't ignore the crime in favor of a discussion of whether a rapist's satisfaction could possibly be proven to outweigh a victim's trauma and horror. If a child is kidnapped, the airwaves aren't polluted with discussion of whether kidnapping might actually be an effective way of acquiring ransom money. And so on.

Torture, apparently, is different. Let's talk about why.

Unlike other crimes, torture has a constituency, in the form of the architects who created America's torture regime. These are the people who feed the public discourse with a steady supply of, "Can you really say that torture never, ever works?" And, "What would you do if your child were kidnapped and the kidnapper refused to reveal the child's location?" And, "How can you compare enhanced interrogation techniquing one terrorist to the 3000 people killed on 9/11?" Etc. The architects, and their media allies, know that as long as the talking heads of television and gatherers by office water coolers, literal and electronic, are discussing the morality and practicality of torture, they won't be talking about the illegality of torture.

But this supply-side explanation is only part of what makes torture different. The supply would have nowhere to go in the absence of demand. And the demand is what we most need to guard against. Purveyors of torture excuses will come and go, but our psyches will never change.

I believe some deep place in the human psyche is attracted to torture. A fundamental aspect of human nature is an abhorrence of powerlessness and a concomitant will to power. And what greater confirmation of power, and banishment of powerlessness, is there than utter control over another human being -- body, mind, and soul?

We also abhor helplessness. It's horrifying to consider that over time we will never be able to entirely prevent terrorist attacks. We prefer to believe 9/11 happened because we failed to do something we could have done, that there's some extreme we can still resort to that will make us safe again, that if we do that thing from now on, we can gain greater mastery over the possibilities that frighten us. Because, for the reasons set forth in the paragraph above, torture is already seductive, we seize on it like a talisman custom-made for our fearful psyches.

So it bears reminding that the reason torture is universally illegal in the civilized world is a consensus that torture is not only evil, but also insidious, and that therefore we must guard against the temptation to torture by enacting and enforcing strict laws against it. These laws provide not just a bulwark against a recrudescence of torture, but act also as a signpost, wisely erected by generations before us, warning us to stand fast against the dark sirens of our worst impulses.

Leave aside the irony that it's self-styled "conservatives" who are so eager to ignore the accreted wisdom of generations past. That the consensus against torture is the work of generations -- the product of generations of mistakes and of continual, improbable appeals not just to morality, but to wisdom, too, to the better angels of our nature -- makes the more debilitating the right's progress in once again coloring torture as something respectable, even desirable.

It is nothing of the sort. Torture is an abomination. It is without exception illegal. Those who have authorized it and those who have carried it out have committed crimes. In the face of clear laws and clear evidence of violation of those laws, a rhetorical resort to theory or morality or practicality isn't just an attempt to obscure the commission of crimes. It's also an implicit debasement of the value of the law itself. Most of all, it's a profoundly unconservative attempt to reingest an evil seed civilization has over time and in the face of dark, conflicting impulses, managed largely to expel.

-- Barry Eisler

Cross-posted at Heart of the Matter. More here:

The Torture Mentality, Part 1

The Torture Mentality, Part 2

The Torture Mentality, Part 3

The Torture Mentality, Part 4

10 comments:

Jim White said...

Thanks for this, Barry.

I agree that some of the "supply siders" are using the excuse of doing "just one more thing" to make us safe. I was stunned a few weeks back when Lindsey Graham actually claimed in a hearing that the reason torture has been around for hundreds of years is because it works. What he left out is that it works to get a false confession of whatever it is the torturer wants to hear.

cocktailhag said...

Excellent, and crystalizing post on this matter. I remember discussions of such things in high school classes, but back then the torturers didn't win. Ticking time bombs were dismissed as the garbage they were.
Those were the days.

Karen M said...

Thank you for this post. I have a real anathema about utilitarian arguments in general, and Torture really pushes that envelope to the extreme.

Any such argument that pits the needs of large groups of people against the needs of seemingly dispensable individuals cannot be justified on any basis.

Perhaps we should start discussing Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" more often around this ridiculous debate.

Thanks again!

harpie said...

Thanks for this essay [and the links] Barry and ondellete. It's difficult not to feel hopeless about the whole thing, sometimes,especially since I had really hoped [despite myself] an election might make a difference. But as long as there are good people like you [and many others], still working at it, there is still a chance things might change.

mikeinportc said...

Thank you, Barry.
One reason that the utilitarian argument is so often used is that the torture proponents almost universally, and many of the apologists, refuse to acknowledge any validity to the moral, ethical, and legal arguments.It (torture) is done to Others, so it doesn't matter. Empathy, and respect for humanity stops at the border, if it goes that far .Often it seems that the utilitarian argument , as distasteful as it is, is the only avenue for engagement . They refuse to discuss/listen to anything else .

How to get through? Painting an Imagine-it-happening-to-you scenario, with the Hell's Angels, Blackwater, or other armed gangs substituting for Afghan warlords, ISI, etc, and $2M+ bounties(~ equivalent to what we paid, in real terms?) helps, especially with all the Worst-of-the-Worst assumptions, but still doesn't get to the essential point. That is , that torture is wrong , period, regardless of circumstances? Any suggestions?

The Reality Kid said...

While I firmly believe there is an inevitable and intimate connection between powerlessness/helplessness and torture (and that the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenarios are concocted to elicit maximum frustration in this context), I'm not sure I agree that this establishes that the human psyche is naturally attracted to torture.

Further, I'm not convinced that there's any need to integrate any human predilection for torture into your otherwise fine analysis.

In keeping with the spirit of the examples used at the beginning of your column, I don't think it's necessary to ponder whether males have any evolutionary drive (or prerogative) to maximize distribution of their seed in a discussion of marital infidelity. While I suppose it may have some sort of explanatory power, it's just not relevant to the discussion.

Also, in both cases, torture and infidelity, suggestions that the behavior is somehow innate serves, however implicitly, to excuse the misconduct.

Anonymous said...

Torture as compared to infidelity???? You're kidding, right???

mikeinportc said...

" suggestions that the behavior is somehow innate serves, however implicitly, to excuse the misconduct.

Reality Kid, that's the Ought/Is Fallacy . If you can find it, read William & Leah Shields' explanation of that .

Not sure if Barry's correct on that point, but even if so, it still doesn't excuse anything.

jpk said...

I suspect "torture works" was offered as an excuse because the purveyors knew they'd already lost the argument that it was acceptable, legal, or civilized. "The end justifies the means" was all they had left.

Martha Joiner said...

I HAVE BEEN A VICTIM OF TORTURE FOR THE LAST THREE YEARS. NSA, DOCTORS, CELL PHONE DEVICE IMPLANTED ILLEGALLY IN MY LEG OR FOOT WHICH CONNECTS ME WITH AREA 51 AND NSA. I'VE ALMOST DIED 4 TIMES. I'M HELD HOSTAGE BY THEIR SATELLITES. CAN GET NO HELP. TEXAS HAD DONE THIS TO ME. MY FACEBOOK PAGE IS MARTHA JOINER. I AM THE ONE SITTING ON THE 4WHEELER WITH MY GRANDSON. IF YOU CAN EVEN GET TO IT. I'VE CONTACTED HOMELAND SECURITY, NO ONE HAS COME TO HELP ME. TORTURE IS REAL IN THE UNITED STATES.