Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Torture experts

Charles Krauthammer has an article arguing that sometimes you just have to torture, so exceptions to the McCain Amendment should be encoded in law. This is, of course, wrong, but I just want to point out one especially misguided bit:
These exceptions to the no-torture rule would not be granted to just any nonmilitary interrogators, or anyone with CIA credentials. They would be reserved for highly specialized agents who are experts and experienced in interrogation, and who are known not to abuse it for the satisfaction of a kind of sick sadomasochism Lynndie England and her cohorts indulged in at Abu Ghraib.
There are two problems with this:

1. "Highly specialized" torturers are, almost by definition, people who would tend to abuse torture for the satisfaction of a kind of sick sadomasochism. Trying to pick kind and decent people who are just inflicting excruciating pain - not just occassionally, but as their major profession - because it's a necessary evil is like trying to square a circle. Not to mention that a great deal of experience in torturing human beings will inevitably coarsen and degrade a kind and decent person to the point of developing a kind of sick sadomasochism to be satisfied by abusing torture.

2. Creating an elite force of "expert professional torturers" (let's not mince words as Krauthammer does by calling them "highly specialized agents" "experienced in interrogation") will only cause professional insularity among the torturers - a feeling that "we" know best, "they" don't know what we're dealing with in here, "we" don't need to be held accountable to "them" (i.e., the American people). The existence of specialized torturers is exactly inimical to Krauthammer's call for public, clearly-defined, well-regulated torture. See, e.g. this essay about torture by a sociologist who studied Brazilian police torturers [pdf].

6 Comments:

Blogger driftwood said...

Torture is always going to be conducted in secret, isn’t it? They will always claim that there is some national security reason why they cannot publicly review what has happened. As the Bush Administration has shown, those tortured are not brought to public trial where they can reveal what has happened and where the torturers will be forced to show what they gained by doing it. Everything will be hidden and officials will deny abuses as mere overblown rumors by their enemies.

I wish people would realize that secret activities are always prone to corruption. If the secret activity is itself nasty, you can assume that the corruption will be worse since it will be undertaken by people who either start out nasty themselves or soon become so (as you note). I suppose that the US, like other governments, has always tortured people on occasion. The only way to keep that down is to aggressively prosecute everybody (most important is the higher ups) involved when a case comes to light. This is very hard to do. Any loopholes in the law would be fatal to the effort.

11/30/2005 05:21:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

"The only way to keep that down is to aggressively prosecute everybody (most important is the higher ups) involved when a case comes to light. This is very hard to do. Any loopholes in the law would be fatal to the effort."

I believe it was someone on Marginal Revolution who pointed out that what blanket prohibitions on torture and attempts to increase transparency fundamentally do is to increase the cost of torture (to the torturer, who runs the risk of prosecution). This is exactly what you'd want if you believed in the "ticking time bomb" scenario - in that case, the benefits to torturing the prisoner would be so huge that they would overcome the "cost" of degrading your humanity as well as the "cost" of risking criminal prosecution. Since torture is so awful, it makes sense to raise the legal "cost" as high as possible.

"Torture is always going to be conducted in secret, isn’t it?"

Yes, and I think that's why Krauthammer's recommendation to make torture both legal and transparent is hopeless, like trying to square a circle.

11/30/2005 07:35:00 PM  
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Torture is always going to be conducted in secret, isn’t it? They will always claim that there is some national security reason why they cannot publicly review what has happened. As the Bush Administration has shown, those tortured are not brought to public trial where they can reveal what has happened and where the torturers will be forced to show what they gained by doing it. Everything will be hidden and officials will deny abuses as mere overblown rumors by their enemies.I wish people would realize that secret activities are always prone to corruption. If the secret activity is itself nasty, you can assume that the corruption will be worse since it will be undertaken by people who either start out nasty themselves or soon become so (as you note). I suppose that the US, like other governments, has always tortured people on occasion. The only way to keep that down is to aggressively prosecute everybody (most important is the higher ups) involved when a case comes to light. This is very hard to do. Any loopholes in the law would be fatal to the effort.

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