Thursday, December 15, 2005

Notes on Torture

Max Boot, in Hate torture? Consider boot camp , says

thousands of men and women who have not committed any crime are held for prolonged periods while subjected to physical and psychological coercion that violates every tenet of the Geneva Convention.

John Cole describes this as "shockingly stupid", and indeed when I first read it I thought that comparing coercion of prisoners with coercion-for-which-you-volunteered was unhelpful. But...

Imagine the country of MaxBootia, in which you can't use a coercive interrogation technique unless you can show that a lot of apparently-sane men and women volunteer for that coercion and are apparently okay with it afterwards. That doesn't strike me as a "shockingly stupid" rule; it would certainly be better than what we've been doing, and I think in fact it would rule out most of what Cole firmly describes as "torture".

By the way, I don't think Cole's definition of torture by examples is a good one; he firmly states that waterboarding is torture, but he does not say, for example, that boot camp is or isn't. He does say he has no problem with "a little sleep deprivation". Well, that leaves a whole lot of fuzz. Boot says that current rules--the ones Cole presumably wants to abolish--do restrict sleep deprivation tactics to

"sleep adjustment" (changing sleeping hours, not denying sleep altogether)
and that's only allowed for supposed high-value targets. Is that torture? Boot doesn't think so. I guess Cole maybe doesn't either? But I'm not sure what Cole thinks torture is.

The MaxBootian rule is morally relevant, and I think it's defensible, and I'd be moderately pleased to have President Bush announce it as a basis for US policy, but it has problems. First, there are problems that most of us would think pseudo-problems, e.g.

Q:Oh, I see. Lots of men and women volunteer for sex and are okay afterwards, so I guess you don't think coerced sex is torture. Right?
A:Rape? Please be serious. When you find a lot of men and women volunteering to be raped and being okay afterwards, then we'll have something to talk about. Meanwhile, I think you're playing games.
Q:Well, umm...oh, bondage! See? Sexual coercion, and people volunteer for it!
A:Oh, please. I don't think there's anything for us to talk about. Bye.
More important, I'm not happy with bootcamp or fraternity hazing as models because the level of coercion (e.g., when you hit somebody with a pugil stick) is subjective. I would say that even slapping goes from non-torture to torture on a morally hazardous slippery slope, and enforcing any subjective rule about severity like the legal definition we have now is morally hazardous too.

A Personal-MaxBootian rule would include an interrogation-certification, sort of like CPR but switching roles with Resusci-Annie: you cannot apply a technique unless you have had it applied to you with the same parameter values within the last year. For example, you can be certified to push somebody into 36 degree water for ten minutes as long as you lasted that long at that temperature yourself within the past 12 months. If you lasted 14 seconds at waterboarding, then that's how long you can apply it for. If you volunteered to be put in manacles and hood on a 4mph treadmill carrying you back towards a "rest" point with air temperature at 105 degrees F for 14 hours, well, then you're a living demonstration of the fact that a personal-MaxBootian rule has problems too. Nonetheless, if Bush announced a personal-MaxBootian rule, I'd be moderately pleased:

I believe torture is something that you wouldn't be willing to undergo yourself. To ensure that we don't torture, I propose that no interrogation procedure can be carried out except by someone who has undergone that specific procedure within a year. Every such procedure must be on a specific list which will be accessible at
I think that would go a long way to defuse a lot of people's worries, including mine. It would leave some worries un-defused.

I don't expect perfection. I'm a geek, so I might add that no "extreme interrogation" session is allowed that isn't done in front of a webcam, to be published in ten years but immediately available to appropriately sworn-in Senators and Congresscritters; they can also view the interrogator's certification session to make sure that the interrogator really did do that -- in fact the certification session video must be public, linked from That's still not perfect, and I could add more constraints, but the point I am trying to make is that there are morally relevant degrees -- both Fahrenheit and other kinds -- which make a real difference. It's not just yes-or-no, and since it's not just yes-or-no I tend to regard the "do you approve of torture? Yes or No?" question as ill-posed to begin with.

I also think it's an unserious cop-out to say that torture can't work because the person being interrogated will say anything to make it stop. Historically speaking, torture works, but that is not a moral justification. We shouldn't be arguing about that at all. Torture does produce information. Why does it work? If you'll say anything to make it stop, then the interrogator gets information which has to be checked, or which can be used to check the information from some other source. That puts limits on the value of the information; it doesn't mean that the information has no value.

When I turned 18 in Buenos Aires in 1970, my family lived across the bay in Montevideo, and I was told that the Uruguayan tupamaros were being defeated, and were in the end defeated, largely by the use of torture, by which one set of arrests would lead to another with a lot of cold showers and other treatments in between. I wasn't happy then. I'm not happy now. JunkYardBlog points to a contemporary example in Iraq:

West tired of the terrorist’s intransigence and fired his gun near the terrorist’s head. Not at him, or even in his direction, but beside him. The terrorist quickly divulged his knowledge of the positions fellow terrorists had staked out to ambush American troops. West’s actions saved lives. Is what West did torture? Should it have been done? How should West have been treated after the fact?
The argument that torture (or any particular interrogation technique) is wrong cannot, I believe, stand securely on "it can't work." It can, which means that it can save lives -- so any particular rule against torture, whether MaxBootian or personal-MaxBootian or Ramada Inn (do nothing that a hotel wouldn't do to its guests), will have costs measured in dead civilians or dead soldiers or defeats.

Indeed, if you show me a rule I'm happy with, I suspect that my happiness will only last until I've thought about it a little more...

Or then again, maybe not.

[Update: Perhaps I should mention that I think rule-design needs to take inevitable rule-breaking into account. Suppose that torture, real torture, were made a capital crime. Suppose that you personally find yourself in a ticking-bomb scenario -- Bob the bad guy has just killed a few FBI agents and miscellaneous civilians, but was wounded and you have just wrapped him up with duct tape. His blow-torch (which you watched him using on a little girl as a way to keep the FBI away) is handy and you believe that you can save 10,000 lives by using it on Bob. I think that some readers will say "yes, of course I will save 10,000 by torturing this evil man." And I know that others will say "absolutely no way will I become Bob; it's better for us all to die." Yes, both those points of view are real. I just find it hard to imagine someone who would say "Well, I believe I can save 10,000 lives and I'd like to do that, but not if it's breaking the law." Maybe I'm just insufficiently imaginative. ]

Update, a few months later: Powerline reports

A former Navy pilot writes to confirm that waterboarding is indeed used in training our pilots...
Does that mean it isn't "torture"? Maybe so; it certainly pushes me in the direction of allowing it within interrogation, as long as the person doing it (in front of a webcam) has undergone it (in front of a webcam) and real comparability is documented. (That's obviously hard to do.)


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