Why "it works" means "it is torture"

February 26, 2010 § 3 Comments

In any event, the upshot of my discussion is this: if, as the double effect defense presupposes, waterboarding or some other interrogation technique is done in a way that is expected to cause harm to the suspect, then that harm is most likely intended as a means by the interrogator and double effect will not justify it. And if such techniques are performed with the intention to cause pain, but not either direct physical harm, or psychological disintegration, then they are likely to be ineffective. Either way, it is, in my view, a good thing that United States’ policy has moved (as it did in the second Bush term) beyond the grim, if understandable, policies of the first few years after 9/11. – Christopher O. Tollefsen

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§ 3 Responses to Why "it works" means "it is torture"

  • Tommy says:

    And if such techniques are performed with the intention to cause pain, but not either direct physical harm, or psychological disintegration, then they are likely to be ineffective.

    Whether it is likely to be effective hardly constitutes the criterion for determining whether it is torture or not. Using an iron maiden to extract a confession (that is true and reliable, of course) is unlikely to be effective, but it is surely torture all the same.

    An interrogator can decide to start with soft stuff that isn't torture (repeated questioning, shouts and fist pounding, etc), and then move to nasty stuff if the soft stuff doesn't work. Just because the soft stuff is less likely to work than the hard stuff doesn't mean that he is being stupid about the whole process. Naturally, then, using one ineffective technique of applying pressure doesn't mean it isn't torture. Nor is using some other (soft) technique for leaning on the prisoner mean that it is torture. Nor does it mean that the soft technique is moral, either. It can be immoral and NOT torture.

    Nor is there any intrinsically necessary connection between the concept of applying a form of pressure that moves the prisoner psychologically to decide to give in and talk, and “psychological disintegration.” Yes, for a person who has a high level of motivation to remain silent and has a high pain threshold, you are probably going to have to use forms of treatment that either harm physically or cause psychological disintegration.

    But some people, who have overactive imaginations and are physically speaking cowards, will give in with very moderate discomfort and a threat of more. And other people are simply not terribly motivated to hang on to their secrets, and will give them up long before psychological disintigration takes place. The fact that the threat of future pain is a form of moral violence does not itself cause such disintegration.

  • Zippy says:

    Whether it is likely to be effective hardly constitutes the criterion for determining whether it is torture or not.

    Oh, I agree — it is the classic “incomplete definition” to presume otherwise. I don't think Tollefsen is asserting a definition though. I take him to be suggesting that given a hardened terrorist who has not provided any information under ordinary interrogation and plea bargaining, if we have to do X to him to get him to break, the probability is that X is torture.

    It is a bit circular, I'll concede, inasmuch as the “hardened terrorist” is presumed to be the sort who wouldn't crack under anything less than torture, so given that he did crack it was torture. But there is truth I think to the notion that if we have a suffering-infliction technique which is expected to “work” in every case, including the most hard of cases, that technique is most likely going to be some kind of torture.

  • Tommy says:

    I don't think Tollefsen is asserting a definition though. …
    if we have a suffering-infliction technique which is expected to “work” in every case, including the most hard of cases, that technique is most likely going to be some kind of torture.

    Oh, I see. It is more of a loose pointer than a definite proof. That's fine.

    What I found most interesting in the quote, though, is the suggestion that what is at the heart of torture is psychological disintegration. I am inclined to think this is a very important sense about what makes torture a special category of its own, rather than a purely ad-hoc term used nebulously for the harsh end of the scale of all unpleasant treatment, which differs only in degree from the less harsh end of the scale.

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