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The Torture Question tonight on PBS
October 18, 2005 8:54 AM   Subscribe

The Torture Question tonight on PBS by far, television's most in-depth look at how the controversial interrogation policy evolved after a major power struggle within the Bush administration. (via Rocky Mountain News) The problem, of course, is that it's often the things we'd rather not think about that we most need to hear, especially when those things are actions taken in all of our names with an eye toward making us safer. Ellen Gray Watch a preview here.
posted by tvgurl (41 comments total)

 
I can't believe that there are actually people who feel that torture is a legitimate or useful technique. It's shameful, disgusting, barbaric, and inhuman.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:00 AM on October 18, 2005


Optimus Chyme writes 'It's shameful, disgusting, barbaric, and inhuman.'

Yeah, but what if the world were about to explode, and the solar system, hell the whole galaxy, and there's this guy, or wait, a little girl, with braces, who knows how to stop it but she's not talking, see? What would you do then, huh?
posted by signal at 9:17 AM on October 18, 2005


It clearly would depend on whether or not you are A BIG MAN.
posted by sonofsamiam at 9:19 AM on October 18, 2005


GOP History Lesson
posted by caddis at 9:19 AM on October 18, 2005


how can you torture information out of innocent people anyway?
posted by wakko at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2005


I was confused why it mattered that the little girl has braces, and I guess it would make it easier to hook up the jumper cables.
posted by JeremyT at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2005


Powerful nations will always put their own interests ahead of international treaties or moral principles. "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." We haven't progressed past that in 2500 years.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:22 AM on October 18, 2005


tvgurl: "...after a major power struggle within the Bush administration."
This one made me spill my coffee. There's never been a power struggle within the administration, just a struggle against the clock and the law to find ways to carry out their policies.

The closest this admin has come to a power struggle was cutting Powell when, as a seasoned military general, he had the audacity to disagree with someone who exploited the military's loopholes in order to avoid going to war.
posted by mystyk at 9:22 AM on October 18, 2005


a little girl, with braces, who knows how to stop it but she's not talking, see? What would you do then, huh?

Show obviously knows something we don't, so, fuck it, let her take us out with a bang!
posted by twistedonion at 9:25 AM on October 18, 2005


It's shameful, disgusting, barbaric, and inhuman
It all comes down to one's ethics...though torturing for saving lives can be considered ethical in some minds. Throw in the mix, loved ones or your in care of their safety…good luck to ethics.

iirc, the Romans skinned a person alive for torture. If the victim died prior to skinning...the skinner was executed, now that's barbaric.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:30 AM on October 18, 2005


Common sense indicates a person being tortured will say whatever it takes to make the toture stop.
posted by exogenous at 9:37 AM on October 18, 2005


Slippery slope. Either you believe in the Constitution or you do not. Torture is cruel and unusual punishment. We should all want to perish from this earth before we dishonor the civilization that document demanded from humanity. My question is why isn't every citizen and Senator storming the White House screaming treason? We have become a country that believes in nothing. Bin Laden knew exactly what he was doing. America is not a place, it's an idea. In order to destroy America you need not invade, you just have to get us to give up our principles for the semblence of security. I wonder if he knew it would be this easy.
posted by any major dude at 9:42 AM on October 18, 2005


Yeah, but what if the world were about to explode, and the solar system, hell the whole galaxy, and there's this guy, or wait, a little girl, with braces, who knows how to stop it but she's not talking, see? What would you do then, huh?

Reductio ad absurdum signal. Instead of talking about INDEFENSIBLE torture at Gitmo, defenders of the policy make up some absurd analogy.

The only question that matters is, is state-sanctioned torture by the United States government permissible to potentially save the lives of a few hundred or even thousands of its citizens?

No fucking way, is the answer.
posted by three blind mice at 9:47 AM on October 18, 2005


Pre-emptive thanks to anyone who manages to record it and upload a torrent.
posted by funambulist at 9:47 AM on October 18, 2005


I can't believe that there are actually people who feel that torture is a legitimate or useful technique. It's shameful, disgusting, barbaric, and inhuman.

It works on 24.
posted by srboisvert at 10:15 AM on October 18, 2005


The "ticking bomb" scenario is a red herring (as many have already called out), but not only because torture tends to produce unreliable information. Torture is illegal, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If an interrogator feels that there is a ticking bomb, and that excessive means are necessary to get that information, than the interrogator can use those means to get that information. However, that interrogator will also face the full weight of the law.
In other words, the ticking bomb scenario is specious. If it was that serious of a situation than self-sacrifice (by the interrogator) would be required. Letting a would-be torturer get off scot free because of some criteria is misguided and dangerous.
posted by forforf at 10:15 AM on October 18, 2005


“...especially when those things are actions taken in all of our names with an eye toward making us safer”
posted by tvgurl at 8:54 AM PST

Torture makes no one safer. Less so. Demonstrably, throughout history. Torture and the like are desperation tactics. It’s notable that the inquisition started just as states began to hold power and stopped when they had it.


“..Though torturing for saving lives can be considered ethical in some minds. Throw in the mix, loved ones or your in care of their safety…good luck to ethics.”
posted by thomcatspike at 9:30 AM PST


Depends on whether you identify yourself with your ethics. Many people have ‘codes’ they live by or like to think they have honor. I live and die by mine.
I would not torture to save the life of someone I love. To do so turns me into something other than the man I am. I would kill or die though. But only given that provocation.
After my children or my wife was dead however - while I reiterate that I believe in not torturing - I could not guarantee I wouldn’t succumb to being a monster.
But that would be due to the loss of my humanity, not the reconciliation of my principles to another standard.


To torture for any reason allows that you yourself can be tortured under the 'right' circumstances. This assures the production of monsters.

It's abominable as a policy and I'm ashamed and horrified that it's even a question in my country.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:21 AM on October 18, 2005


It all comes down to one's ethics...though torturing for saving lives can be considered ethical in some minds. Throw in the mix, loved ones or your in care of their safety…good luck to ethics.

omg . . . teh pwn . . .

Except that torture as a means of extracting reliable information doesn't work and therefore will not save lives.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:24 AM on October 18, 2005


"GOP History Lesson
posted by caddis at 9:19 AM PST on October 18 [!]”

Excellent illustration.
(I would note the dems can be accused of the same loss of moral clarity though)
posted by Smedleyman at 10:26 AM on October 18, 2005


Don't worry people. America just gets countries like Eygpt to tortue people for them anyway. You don't need to feel bad.
posted by chunking express at 10:35 AM on October 18, 2005


I really don't know whether torture is an effective way of getting useful information. This question is more interesting to me than the moral question because there exists the potential for a concrete answer.

I tend to think of torture like this:
People find it worthwhile to keep secrets, they place a value on both the secret being kept and on their ability to keep the secret. Torture places a cost on keeping information a secret, if this cost exceeds the benefits of keeping a secret then the person tortured should surrender the information.

Under this model torture has a number of problems, first is the obvious problem of there being no guarantee that the person tortured has an useful secrets. The other problem with torture is that most torture costs are sunk costs. By this I mean, past tortures do not impact the decision of whether to surrender secrets except as a proxy for future tortures. If the tortured person is hit he will not surrender the information unless he expects to be hit again, and probably not unless he expects to get hit worse or harder or more often.

Now compare torture to bribery, if a bribe is offered for information it would attract people who have the information who value the secrecy of that information less than the bribe. It would also attract many liars. However the liars can be eradicated by offering a penalty sufficient to prevent lying, I think the ideal strategy would be a large amount of cash and a new identity in America or sufficient protection elsewhere if the information is wrong, the informant loses any benefits and gets maybe one month prison something that is enough to weed out people seeking big rewards but not enough to scare off honest informants.

I think bribery is in the vast majority of cases superior to torture from the point of strategy. I also realize that I've over rationalized the torture game mostly because I don't know the psychology involved in these transactions and I imagine it would be hard to find out accurate information about it.
posted by I Foody at 10:36 AM on October 18, 2005


Whatever happened to truth serums? With a $400 billion budget, couldn't the Pentagon concoct a reliable truth serum?
posted by disgruntled at 10:46 AM on October 18, 2005


Whatever happened to truth serums? With a $400 billion budget, couldn't the Pentagon concoct a reliable truth serum?

Well, looking at that angle, there are completely painless brain imaging techniques around right now that hold far greater promise for reliably sorting out truth from fiction (no time to find a link right now, unfortunately). Those techniques aren't demonstrated to be fool-proof yet, but I guarantee you they're already more reliable than torture when it comes to evaluating the truth of an interrogation subject's statements, if what you're looking for is actually the truth (which I suspect torturers often aren't).
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 11:07 AM on October 18, 2005


It works on 24.
posted by srboisvert at 1:15 PM EST on October 18 [!]


Ironically, it did and it didn't (if you're talking about the recent season). Kind of a strange show in that respect.
posted by Rothko at 11:23 AM on October 18, 2005


I Foody: bribes are already a tactc in use, too.

They can have nasty side effects though.
posted by funambulist at 11:24 AM on October 18, 2005


Whatever happened to truth serums? With a $400 billion budget, couldn't the Pentagon concoct a reliable truth serum?

LOL. When we can even define "truth"... maybe. Truth these days is a set of preconceived assumptions aligned to a particular world view quite separate it seems from objective reality.

Smed has it absolutely right. States cannot torture and remain states with any moral authority.

Individuals... well. I understand wanting violent revenge but I can't rationally condone it. But I'm rational right now. If my wife or daughter got blown up... I can't contemplate how I'd react. But I would not hesitate to accept the responsibility of my actions and certainly wouldn't not argue violent action to be legally excusable by the state.

Since they can't PROVE the utility of their tactics this is what the Bush administration is essentially arguing - that torture is excusable because we are all excusably hysterical and irrational because of 911. So even IF we torture and kill the wrong people - even if it doesn't do any good - we shouldn't feel bad because we are not in our right minds.

States should ALWAYS be rational.
posted by tkchrist at 11:29 AM on October 18, 2005


It works on 24.

And 104lb waif models can be super-kung-fu assassins that can explosively decompress into free-fall sky dive at 20,000 feet without oxygen.
posted by tkchrist at 11:33 AM on October 18, 2005


Tkchrist, they are joking; just a heads-up there, buddy.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:36 AM on October 18, 2005


Torture, while in extreme "red herring" cases, may be in fact morally permissable according to some codes of ethics, it should never ever be legal, and should always be punishable to the furthest extent of the law.

If it's worth torturing a human being, it's worth going to jail for a long, long time. Plain and simple.
posted by Freen at 11:44 AM on October 18, 2005


Tkchrist, they are joking; just a heads-up there, buddy.

I know. The problem is the rest of America DOESN'T. They think the shit they see on 24 and Alias is real.
posted by tkchrist at 11:45 AM on October 18, 2005


ARMY INTERROGATOR
Where are the weapons of mass destruction?

IRAQI PRISONER
There are none.

The interrogator flips a swich, sending a jolt of electricity through the Iraqis scrotum.

IRAQI PRISONER
Arrrrgh!!!!

The interrogator flips the switch back.

ARMY INTERROGATOR
Where are the weapons of mass destruction?

IRAQI PRISONER
There are none.

The interrogator flips the swich, another jolt fries his balls.

IRAQI PRISONER
Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!!!!

The interrogator flips the switch back.

ARMY INTERROGATOR
Where are the weapons of mass destruction?

IRAQI PRISONER
There are none.

The interrogator flips the swich, this time longer....
posted by disgruntled at 11:58 AM on October 18, 2005


Is he torturing Charlie Brown?
posted by InfidelZombie at 12:21 PM on October 18, 2005


The "UN Convention Against Torture," which the US ratified in October 1994, says "no one may be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." (My emphasis.) The convention is implemented in Title 18, Chapter 113C of the United States Code.

In the October 1999 Initial Report of the United States of America to the UN Committee Against Torture, the State Department said:
Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States....Every act constituting torture under the Convention constitutes a criminal offense under the law of the United States. No official of the government, federal, state or local, civilian or military, is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture. Nor may any official condone or tolerate torture in any form. No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification of torture. U.S. law contains no provision permitting otherwise prohibited acts of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to be employed on grounds of exigent circumstances (for example, during a "state of public emergency") or on orders from a superior officer or public authority, and the protective mechanisms of an independent judiciary are not subject to suspension.
Note: offer may not include Guantanamo Bay.

An August 1, 2002, memo [PDF] from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to then-White House Legal Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales says:
Certain acts may be cruel, inhuman, or degrading, but still not produce pain and suffering of the requisite intensity to fall within a proscription against torture.
...
Physical pain amounting to torture muhst be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.
In June 2003, President Bush issued a statement saying, "The United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example."
posted by kirkaracha at 12:41 PM on October 18, 2005


"how can you torture information out of innocent people anyway?"

It's easy. Hell, it's done all the time. Torture the innocent and they'll tell you exactly what they think you want to hear, in order to get you to stop!

...which, of course, is a surefire sign that they aren't really so innocent, right?!
posted by insomnia_lj at 12:45 PM on October 18, 2005


"They never even asked me any questions" -- Han Solo

Am I the only one who feels that torture, as practiced by those in power and wish to remain that way, is not necessarily about getting information?
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:04 PM on October 18, 2005


"Am I the only one who feels that torture, as practiced by those in power and wish to remain that way, is not necessarily about getting information?"
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:04 PM PST on October 18 [!]

Yup. How better to generate an enemy? How better to justify needless overhead and useless govt. programs?

Remember that period when we weren't obsessed with fighting someone (Rooskis, Communism, Ay-rabs, terr-ists what have you)?

Money was coming in hand over fist.
Where is it now?
posted by Smedleyman at 1:40 PM on October 18, 2005


Torture is about fear, pure and simple. The point is for word to get out about what happens to you if you don't toe the line.
posted by signal at 1:45 PM on October 18, 2005


I know. The problem is the rest of America DOESN'T. They think the shit they see on 24 and Alias is real.

Phew! I was worried that my failure to get recruited into a spy organization while I was in grad school was personal. Instead the world just isn't cool.
posted by srboisvert at 1:58 PM on October 18, 2005


Sir Bedevere: There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.
Peasant 1: Are there? Oh well, tell us.
Sir Bedevere: Tell me. What do you do with witches?
Peasant 1: Burn them.
Sir Bedevere: And what do you burn, apart from witches?
Peasant 1: More witches.
Peasant 2: Wood.
Sir Bedevere: Good. Now, why do witches burn?
Peasant 3: ...because they're made of... wood?
Sir Bedevere: Good. So how do you tell whether she is made of wood?
Peasant 1: Build a bridge out of her.
Sir Bedevere: But can you not also build bridges out of stone?
Peasant 1: Oh yeah.
Sir Bedevere: Does wood sink in water?
Peasant 1: No, no, it floats!... It floats! Throw her into the pond!
Sir Bedevere: No, no. What else floats in water?
Peasant 1: Bread.
Peasant 2: Apples.
Peasant 3: Very small rocks.
Peasant 1: Cider.
Peasant 2: Gravy.
Peasant 3: Cherries.
Peasant 1: Mud.
Peasant 2: Churches.
Peasant 3: Lead! Lead!
King Arthur: A Duck.
Sir Bedevere: ...Exactly. So, logically...
Peasant 1: If she weighed the same as a duck... she's made of wood.
Sir Bedevere: And therefore...
Peasant 2: ...A witch!
posted by kirkaracha at 2:05 PM on October 18, 2005


Anyone interested in these issues should read Darius Rejali; his Torture & Modernity: Self, Society, and State in Modern Iran is extremely illuminating, and he's got a book coming out from Princeton this year, Torture and Democracy, that deals with exactly what we're talking about here.
Stealthy torture is more characteristic of democracies for here public monitoring – though often uneven – is far higher, and the demand for covert violence correspondingly greater. The logic of this dynamic, of the incentives and disincentives created by the tensions between authority and civic power, is certainly thoughtprovoking in itself. But I go farther, arguing that, historically, civic power and violence by stealth have an unnerving affinity. Many common tortures today either originated in democracies or achieved their most characteristic form in that context.
posted by languagehat at 2:17 PM on October 18, 2005


Phew! I was worried that my failure to get recruited into a spy organization while I was in grad school was personal. Instead the world just isn't cool.

That ain't it. How do you look in a pink Betty Page wig, sheer silk Claire Pettibone Athena Cropped Camisole, and 8" heels? And can you shoot straight whilst wearing latex fetish wear? These are the vital qualities that our national security rests upon.
posted by tkchrist at 3:19 PM on October 18, 2005


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