How Torture Really Works, and What It Really Is

After perfectly unambiguous campaign promises about bringing back “a hell of a lot more than waterboarding,” we see a leaked draft executive order bringing back enhanced interrogation techniques and re-opening black sites.  Since then, Press Secretary Spicer has since disavowed the document, but given that the Trump Administration has already made progress on the other centerpiece parts of it’s platform like the Muslim ban and the Mexico Wall, and given Trump’s praise of the practice to David Muir, I think it’s reasonable not to assume the issue of torture is going away.  So, let’s give it a go one more time:

When we imagine to ourselves the question of torture, the situation we imagine ourselves in says a lot about what we think torture is and how it should be used.  It’s not that difficult to imagine a scenario where we’d be tempted.  Sam Harris articulates it best.  But the original comes from philosopher Michael Levin and doesn’t change much.  He argues in favor of torture using examples including extracting information from a terrorist who’s planted a nuclear bomb that has yet to go off somewhere, either in a major populated area or a jumbo jet.  Or, perhaps, that a newborn baby has been stolen from the hospital.  In these cases, time is always of the essence, and we weigh a large quantity of innocent lives (or one life with a large quantity of innocence) against the rights of the culprit.  Surely, he argues, that the lives of the innocent must outweigh the rights of our imagined terrorist.

Framed this way, it’s difficult to argue against.  If the comfort of the criminal in question is all that stands in the way of saving these lives, it makes sense that we’re authorized to do something we would otherwise find abhorrent.  Our hypothetical case might seem so clear that McCain’s  “It’s not about who they are. It’s about who we are.” rings a little hollow.  What about who those innocent people are, right?  But there’s a missing assertion to the ticking time bomb narrative, and to every example anyone ever gives about torture to justify their case: the certainty of the guilt of the suspect.  In each case, that the apprehended individual knows with complete certainty the location of the bomb or the kidnapped child is taken as a given.  We know we’ve got the right guy, and we know he knows.  So what’s the problem?

From Levin’s text: “Suppose a terrorist group kidnapped a newborn baby from a hospital. I asked four mothers if they would approve of torturing kidnappers if that were necessary to get their own newborns back.

Torturing kidnappers.  Not ‘suspects’, not ‘people apprehended at the scene’, not ‘those accused’, but ‘kidnappers‘.  In the space of one word, the investigation, trial, and sentencing has already taken place.  The distinction isn’t just equivocation, it’s actually central to the issue.  Saying we know that he’s guilty and that he knows what we need to know is easy.  Coming up with a reason for it should be easy, too, right? Let’s give it a shot: How do we know this person is guilty of the crime?  How do we know that this person knows anything?  We can make up anything we want and the only real requirement is that our proof of guilt has to keep the information we’re torturing for hidden.

Ok, maybe someone saw him plant the bomb.  That’s iconclad proof, sure, but now we know where the bomb is.  No need to torture.  Let’s try again. . .

Fine, maybe his partner in crime ratted him out!  What reason do we have to believe his partner, given that he was also involved in a terrorist plot.  By the way, did his partner rat him out while being tortured?

Go ahead and try to imagine whatever set of circumstances you’d like that implicates the suspect but leaves out enough information to require the need for torture.  I think the best you could do would be to invent a scenario where the person in custody had confessed, but, even then you’re running the risk that he’s lying and you’re wasting your time.  By and large, if the purpose of the torture is to extract information, whether or not the person being tortured is guilty of the crime or actually knows anything is, by definition, in question.

If that’s the case, the only useful method of torture would be to know exactly where the bomb is, but to pretend ignorance and torture them for information anyway.  By torturing the subject until you get what you know to be the truth, you could condition them to tell the truth in the future.  Would that be ok?  Of course not, right?

Well, that’s exactly what the torture program was.


In 2013 Slate’s William Saletan sat in on a discussion with former CIA officials who ran the program.  He reports:  “Hayden acknowledged that prisoners might say anything to stop their suffering. (Like the other panelists, he insisted EITs weren’t torture.) That’s why “we never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment.” Instead, EITs were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators knew the answers and could be sure they were inflicting misery only when the prisoner said something false. The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was “to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation” by convincing them that “you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands.” Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for EITs.

You read that right, the CIA’s program of torture was only applied when they already knew the answer to the question to condition the subject, because that’s the only useful way to torture anyone; so sayeth the administrators of that program.  We all knew ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ was a euphemism, turns out ‘torture’ was a euphemism as well.  With ‘torture’ we imagine urgency, the desperate extraction of information we must have immedidately.  The right way to refer to what the United Stats did to detainees would be ‘using pain and fear to psychologically condition prisoners into compliance.’  Is this who we want to be?

9/11 was a decade and a half ago.  While there are no real excuses, I think we can look back within the context of history and say that what we did we did out of panic and fear.  We can say that we did not realize the road we were travelling until it was too late.  We can say that we have learned from our mistakes.  But, if we return to torture now, we cannot pretend that it has anything to do with our safety or about stopping terrorism.  This would be revenge or bloodlust or both.  An opportunity to harm someone because some part of us believes we will feel better after they are harmed.

So, when Donald Trump openly praises torture, he’s telling you what he thinks of you.  He thinks that, for you, the sins of the War on Terror were not enough.  He thinks that you’d still like to see a little more blood, inflict a little more pain.  And he wants you to know that, if you want to indulge your baser nature, he’s got your back.  If you don’t, maybe he’s not the leader you thought he was.

Looks like McCain was right, it’s not about who they are, it’s about who you are.