Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


The Costs of Torture

I usually try to cut down quotes. This essay by Siva Vaidhyanathan in Slate’s Altercation is worth quoting at length:

I was wondering something. Maybe somebody could help me out here. Yesterday a federal jury decided appropriately that this country shall not execute Zacarias Moussaoui, a wanna-be-mass murderer who also happens to be a mentally disturbed megalomaniac who dearly wished to become a martyr for his twisted cause.

No one disputes that Moussaoui should be held accountable for his actions in support of what became the air attacks of September 11, 2001. But it’s clearly unjust to execute a person for deaths he did not cause (even if he had wished to) simply because he refused to incriminate himself to the FBI….

The jury had a difficult decision to make, in the face of wrenching emotional pleas by federal prosecutors and witnesses and the clear hunger we have to bring someone — anyone — to justice for these offenses.

What gets me — what I don’t understand — is why millions of my fellow American citizens, led by the families of those who lost loved ones in the attacks, are not banging down the doors of the Justice Department to bring to justice those who really did mastermind the killings of 3,000 of my neighbors. Their memory still hangs heavy in the air of my city. And we wonder why our government seems all too willing to put on a show trial of a sad peripheral character instead of pursuing real justice and — I admit it — satisfying vengeance.

Somewhere in a secret prison sits Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the mastermind of the attacks. Our government could bring him to trial either here in the United States or in the Hague. It could use the trial to demonstrate not only the terrible hatred that drives Al Queda to murder so many innocents around the world. It could use a trial to reveal the depth and breadth of the ideological threat that we face in coming years. It could show how we can avoid such vulnerability in the future. A Khalid Sheik Mohammad conviction would be deeply meaningful and satisfying.

Best of all, it could demonstrate to the world that despite so much recent evidence to the contrary, the United States is a nation of laws and its governmental agents are not above either our laws or international laws. They whole world thinks we have given up on the concept of justice. We could use a decent trial to show otherwise.

The reason we have not done this may be very disturbing: in our haste to be brutal and stupid, we almost certainly tortured Mohammad, rendering him unconvictable in any decent court in any decent country. We have also held him and hundreds more for more than three years without counsel, without facing charges, without a chance to respond to accusations, and without even allowing their families to know that they are in custody.

[I clicked the no comments button by accident, and have opened this post for comments.]

7 comments on "The Costs of Torture"

  • Not So Innocent Observer says:

    > A Khalid Sheik Mohammad conviction would be
    > deeply meaningful and satisfying.
    I wonder if the author thought it thru. Satisfying to who?
    People that already have trust in the American (or even Western) legal system don’t need this kind of satisfaction, I think. The Arab/Moslem world won’t be convinced of the impartiality of the Judiciary by a CNN mega-legal-event.
    If that much, a lengthy trial would be a drain on public coffers and, worse still, a platform for the jihadists to sound off their views and supposed triumphs.
    In my personal view, their actions were dictated by that central maxim of terrorism, which seems to be grabbing hold of the media to make their “demands” known. That is, they wanted attention. What better punishment than to have that attention taken away from them, their criminal selves snatched and pushed into obscurity ?
    As to the value of “showing to the world their true face” by exposing them at a trial…again…who needs convincing?
    I am not a rabid supporter of torture,and I am somewhat ashamed to say that I can rationalize its use. If their interrogation, by whatever methods deemed necessary at the time, helped save one single innocent life, hey, pass me the electrodes and I’ll attach them myself.
    The concept of justice between two separate observers is, IMHO, largely a function of their personal perception of “Justice”, the ideal, a priori. In my personal view, the moment they (Mohammad and friends) stepped out of the uniformed world of military action and into the hide-behind-your-population world of jihadi terrorism, they gave up the concept of justice as seen by the world at large, instead adopting a personal concept of justice grabbed by the wronged at the tip of a rifle. At that moment, I don’t think we owe to them a serving of our own flavor of justice. I choose to believe that however tortured he might have been, however dark his cell be, he still got better treatment than many of the civilians targetted in Iraq, for example.

  • Nik says:

    “If their interrogation, by whatever methods deemed necessary at the time, helped save one single innocent life, hey, pass me the electrodes and I’ll attach them myself.”
    That’s a fairly common rationalisation, but it begs another question: how many innocent people would you be prepared to torture on your route to saving one innocent life?

  • albatross says:

    Also, how much additional torture by other countries, no longer subject to our pressure to improve their human rights record, is worth saving that innocent person? And if it’s okay to occasionally torture the wrong person (how are you going to keep it from ever happening), then is it okay to torture the terrorist’s wife, children, siblings, etc., to get him to talk and save another innocent life or two?

  • Stormcrow says:

    “I am somewhat ashamed to say that I can rationalize its use. If their interrogation, by whatever methods deemed necessary at the time, helped save one single innocent life, hey, pass me the electrodes and I’ll attach them myself.”
    You have got to be kidding us, right?? Are you really this dense?
    You are aware, I hope, that the “intelligence” value of information obtained under torture is less than zero.
    The wretch put to the question thus isn’t going to give “telling the truth” any sort of priority at all. The thing uppermost in his mind is going to be making the pain stop. He’ll spin any fairy tale he thinks his questioner wants to hear in order to accomplish that end. He really doesn’t care one way or the other. Do you think he gives a curse about what the /interrogator’s/ goals are??
    The “hard intel” you get that way is pure poison. Cyanide. Report it up the chain and your managers will be convinced it’s gold, because of its provenance. It won’t occur to them that it’s just the pain talking and nothing more.
    You cannot even trust information your victim volunteers later. It’s integrity must be suspect because you poisoned the relationship with the subject when you tortured him.
    Lazy, sloppy, careless men who want their answers by magic succumb to the temptation to resort to torture.
    Which tells us quite a bit about how low the CIA has fallen, and why we went to war over nonexistent WMDs.

  • Not So Innocent Observer says:

    Stormcrow, I wonder if we can dialog without resorting to name calling and epithets?
    By your approach to the use of obtained information, and your (probably justified) mention of the CIA, I take it that you’re american. My apologies if I am mistaken. I am not. I guess we have different backgrounds that amount to different points of view.
    You may or may not be aware, but information has a “shelf life” and scope, operational, tactical or strategic.
    It seems that the Hollywood factor has happened again. It is not always a “Jack Bauer beats someone up and call director who calls the president” situation.Sometimes information obtained under duress and morally questionable methods has value and scope that serves immediate, tactical purposes. This is the information that can save lives. I guess it is also possible to “refine” the information provided by cross-referencing sources and facts. It is not always a matter of “i’ll say whatever you want, just let me go”.
    Sometimes you need to know something, quick, and that may be of value, however limited, to stop something “worse” from happening. Of course the definition of “worse” varies from person to person, but I already exposed my views. You already exposed, in no uncertain terms, that you disagree with me, so I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • Stormcrow says:

    I see that you apparently were sufficiently distracted as to fail to grasp the point of my comment.
    It doesn’t matter how fast you can get “intelligence” via torture. In the same way that it doesn’t matter how fast you stick your fingers into a live electrical socket.
    It is still toxic garbage that is going to result in mistakes at best, catastrophe at worst, if it is relied upon.
    It has negative value. It aids the interrogator’s ENEMY.
    It is probably fantasy. As the WMD “intel” proved to be, in the event.
    Because those who yield it are not motivated to do or say anything at all except that which stops the pain. Not even tell the truth. Just and only that which stops the pain.
    I hope that was sufficiently simple and clear.

  • Not So Innocent Observer says:

    I see that your (definitely right and admirable) moral compass keeps you from looking at facts as they are.
    I am not talking WMD-or-no-WMD. I am talking where-is-your-compadre-with-the-explosive-belt-hiding.
    You are correct, pain may taint information. But the promise of subsequent pain can do wonders on filtering that information.Sure, tell me what I want to know and the pain will stop. If what you tell me is not the truth, the pain will come back threefold. Soon.
    This is what I addressed by scope and “shelf life” of information. I do not disagree with you in points like the search for WMD. I just think if you look at things at a smaller scale (which is, in some parts of the world, the scale that actually matters) you’ll see that it may be possible to interpret results in a different way.
    Yes, you were sufficiently simple and clear, and IMHO, sufficiently naive, inexperienced and short-sighted. But coming from a real good place, and that’s admirable. More people like you in the world, and this issue wouldn’t even need to be discussed.

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