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The Horror And The Folly
November 15, 2007 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Torture didn't work in Renaissance Europe. And it doesn't work now. Real historic accounts of real people being tortured in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it composes a body of fact and experience that speaks directly to the present.
posted by JaySunSee (42 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
People torture because they're sadistic fucks.
posted by chunking express at 6:40 PM on November 15, 2007


As the Catholic Church understood, it works quite effectively.
posted by washburn at 6:46 PM on November 15, 2007


It doesn't matter whether torture works or not, it's morally reprehensible either way
posted by Authorized User at 6:53 PM on November 15, 2007 [4 favorites]


From the article:

"Torture could compel ordinary Jews, law-abiding craftsmen and housewives and teenagers to confess fantastic crimes. Torn from their normal lives, imprisoned, subjected to terrifying, intense pain, most of them would, quite simply, say anything...
...doing things that violated the laws not only of Moses, but of nature itself. Witch after witch admitted having flown to a Sabbat -- a meeting where witches supposedly worshipped the devil -- as well as having destroyed crops, killed babies...
"
posted by JaySunSee at 7:03 PM on November 15, 2007


If we might put aside the name calling for a moment, I would point out that "back then" torture was mainly used to get a "confession" because it was important to punish (execute) only those that were guilty and if you had a "confession," then you were ok. It is because of this that we have our Fifth Amendment: no man (or of course woman) shall be made to testify against himself (herself).

The torture referred to in its current discussion has more to do with gaining information than in getting a confession of guilt.
posted by Postroad at 7:04 PM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


If by "work", you mean getting the actual truth out of a person, then, no torture has probably rarely worked. But I don't think torture is really used in order to extract truth from someone; rather, it's meant to elicit the response that the torturer wants, the one that will further his agenda.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 7:06 PM on November 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


And the point Anthony Grafton was getting at was that torture is being used today by the U.S. administration is "abandoning the Enlightenment ideals that brought our country into being... and it is not an instrument that a decent society has any business applying."

This was one of the most powerful articles I have ever read, and thought to share it.
posted by JaySunSee at 7:08 PM on November 15, 2007


The torture referred to in its current discussion has more to do with gaining information than in getting a confession of guilt.

Yes, but the point of the article, and of pretty much every anti-torture argument that's not based on humanitarian grounds, is that torture is useless for gathering information. There is no way to prove to a torturer that you really don't know anything while under torture and eventually almost anyone will confess to almost anything to get the pain to stop.

This makes even real information gained under torture suspect as there's no way to know how much of a story was spun to stop the pain.
posted by Silentgoldfish at 7:10 PM on November 15, 2007


The sad thing is, that you'd think that an article like this wouldn't even be necessary. It's depressing that these things actually still need to be explained.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 7:11 PM on November 15, 2007


"I'm sittin' plickin' chickens
and I'm looking through the pickins
when suddenly these men break down my valls.

I didn't even know them
and they grabbed me by the scrotum
and they starting playing ping-pong with my balls.

Ooh the agony.
Oh the shame.
They make my privates public for a game?"
-Mel Brooks
posted by ColdChef at 7:12 PM on November 15, 2007


Why do you hate the city-state of Florence so much?
posted by DU at 7:14 PM on November 15, 2007 [5 favorites]


But we're talking about Old Europe here, right?
posted by PlusDistance at 7:15 PM on November 15, 2007


The entire "Spanish Inquisition" segment of History of the World, Part I to choose from, and you go for Jackie Mason's bit?

Oh, Chef. The horror!
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:19 PM on November 15, 2007


One should also remember the central role of confession and the redeeming power of suffering in Christianity at the time. In that era, a long drawn out death was considered preferable since it afforded one the chance to contemplate and prepare for meeting God, including a full confession of all one's sins. Like a warm-up for purgatory!
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:24 PM on November 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


So by extension the article is saying that since confessions gained under torture are invalid, and since waterboarding isn't torture.....
posted by mattoxic at 7:24 PM on November 15, 2007


I suppose that I should say Catholicism. Other Christianities existed.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:25 PM on November 15, 2007


By the way, the "It Works" piece I linked to at the top of this thread is an article by Naomi Klein arguing that while torture isn't a reliable means of extracting information, it can function well as an instrument for intimidating populations through fear and shaping invisible enemies. Probably should have mentioned that up-front, rather than being so cryptic and single-linky.
posted by washburn at 7:37 PM on November 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


It was through torture that we aquired the information that Saddam was working with Al Qaeda, which Powell presented at the UN as one of the reasons for war with Iraq. Of course, that information was false.

Like DrGirlfriend said, torture just elicits the response the torturer wants to hear.
posted by homunculus at 7:42 PM on November 15, 2007


Thanks for these links, JaySunSee and washburn.
posted by homunculus at 7:46 PM on November 15, 2007


It doesn't matter whether torture works or not, it's morally reprehensible either way

See, this line of argument doesn't really help. The people who are doing and supporting the torture obviously disagree with the morality bit, or else they just don't care. Either way, you're probably not going to change their mind by belaboring the point. And by solely going after the morality of torture, you essentially cede the utility argument to them without a fight.

This is terrible, because once you've ceded that it's potentially useful (which you do, in their minds, by not immediately saying that it's not; i.e. if not even the most outspoken critics of torture question its effectiveness, and can do nothing but harp about morality, clearly it must be very effective, right?), and they've just decided they don't give a rat's ass about morality, you're left without a leg to stand on.

I think this is one of the major reasons why it's taken so long to get the government to crack down on officially-sanctioned torture: if one side (the people against torture) look at it purely in moral terms, and the other side (the political/military leadership) looks at it purely in terms of efficacy, it's easy for them to both ignore each other.

If you want to argue effectively against torture, you have to argue against both. Yes, it's immoral, evil, etc. That's nice, but you're preaching to the choir. It's also not a good tactic for extracting useful/actionable intelligence from prisoners, even if you have the option. That's an argument that stands a chance at convincing people.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:01 PM on November 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


You're making one big assumption there: Torture doesn't work. In absence of anything but anecdotal evidence I'm not willing to argue either way on that, except perhaps to say that some of what you might consider not working (false confessions, questionable intelligence) might be considered working by would-be torturers.

This is why I don't even like discussing the efficacy of torture, not only is it beside the point but it legitimizes torture by making it seem that it would be ok if it worked.
posted by Authorized User at 8:22 PM on November 15, 2007


Authorized User writes "You're making one big assumption there: Torture doesn't work."

That's something that is known, because humans have used torture for quite a long time. We don't need to assume anything.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:38 PM on November 15, 2007


Torture is not a morally correct course of action, but if it didn't 'work' (i.e. get results above what might be obtained through lack of torture), why would people torture? To simply be sadists? That's a bit of a specious presumption, in my view. Because it's easier than an alternative? Okay, so, what is an alternative?

The question of torture isn't so cut and dried. How should actors achieve ends without the use of torture? Should we focus on the means, instead? Flowery language? (Harsh language?) At some point, there needs to be a method of efficient coercion. And unfortunately for the world, there are still plenty of people who believe in -brute- coercion, rather than some uninjurious alternative. The brute force IS the instrument of efficiency. I mean, basely put, the easiest and most primitive way of getting someone to do something is via force. The perceived efficacy of torture logically follows from that instinct.

Last, in short reply to some of you, the bit about the tortured just saying what their torturer wants to hear is certainly valid. It undercuts any sort of argument about whether or not information obtained via torture is definitely reliable.

But is some (possibly false) information worse than no information at all? There are at least two outcomes, and one of those outcomes is that the tortured will give up truthful information in order to save their own skin. That's the gamble. And (I'm going to be very reductionist here) if torture is all based around information transfer -- what's the better mode of communication?

Coercion is pretty damned difficult to pull off.

@DrGirlfriend: The reason it needs to be discussed is because it's a bit of a multifaceted problem. It's easy to say that xxxxxx is bad, but a different point of view may hold that it's just okay. And there, the problem is a lack of a shared definition. (Especially when it comes to slippery shit like morals.)
posted by peeet at 9:09 PM on November 15, 2007


peeet writes "Torture is not a morally correct course of action, but if it didn't 'work' (i.e. get results above what might be obtained through lack of torture), why would people torture? To simply be sadists?"

No, it's about fear and domination. I'm sure there are people who employ it and are convinced it works. But empirical evidence tells us otherwise. It may only be reliable a minority of the time. People who are tortured will tell the truth and anything else to get it to stop. Is it worth it to debase ourselves in order to obtain some potentially good information?

"But is some (possibly false) information worse than no information at all? There are at least two outcomes, and one of those outcomes is that the tortured will give up truthful information in order to save their own skin. That's the gamble. And (I'm going to be very reductionist here) if torture is all based around information transfer -- what's the better mode of communication?"

The problem is how do you tell the good information from the bad? And how far can we compromise our integrity in order to defend it?

There are some lines that shouldn't be crossed, out of a sense of human decency. Not for utility. Certainly not for honor.

In WWII, we treated POWs well, and often they told us valuable information. Many were relieved to be captured, as they knew the US would treat them better than their own leaders. We no longer have any such advantage, and we no longer can claim that sort of integrity.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:24 PM on November 15, 2007


Torture is not a morally correct course of action, but if it didn't 'work' (i.e. get results above what might be obtained through lack of torture), why would people torture?

It gets results that can only be obtained through torture-- namely creating a climate of fear and intimidation and fulfills the desire to exert violent power over others. That is the point and that is why people torture. Merely getting information has been known to be accomplished without torture and has a long history of being used effectively.

Torture "works" in the sense that it accomplishes its goals-- to terrorize, intimidate, and get the desired responses from the victim. Is that what you are trying to say? Because you spent a lot of time dancing around the issue in that post of yours.
posted by deanc at 9:25 PM on November 15, 2007


I don't like the "It doesn't work" argument against torture. I don't like it because it's empirical, it could be shown that torture might work under certain circumstances, and then what would you say.

A better argument against torture is that it's wrong. It's can't ever be disproven.
posted by delmoi at 9:32 PM on November 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


@krinklyfig: doesn't the fear and domination get results? Even if they are (relatively) useless results? If torture only works a portion of the time, it then must provide results (under certain circumstances, granted), and therefore must be an option. Even if it isn't that viable. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the facade of American exceptionalism falls flat on its face when policies of torture are pursued -- but, what's the alternative? That's what I'm getting at. If we were to pursue extremely moral policies, we'd end up facing actors who did not abide by the same moral calculus. Then, who benefits -- the actor constrained by what is seen as good or bad, or the actor who sees everything as permissible?

Maybe that's the rub. Maybe everyone in the world just isn't on the same page.

Is it worth it to debase ourselves? I'd definitely say no, because I believe that there's some more viable option that isn't being exercised. But there's an inherent problem between confusing results and morals. I believe that it's possible to pursue both at the risk of losing gains in one sphere or another -- it seems to follow that someone is going to decide that pursuing one agenda (morals or outcomes) is going to be more worthwhile than trying to pursue both. I suppose that this is the problem; for instance, the current US administration is hellbent on achieving ends at the expense of morals. My question is, how can these two goals (achieving ends and maintaining integrity) be reconciled? There has to be a way, and it certainly isn't from torture.

As for information transfer, again, is no information better than false information to work from? I'm obviously an armchair policy wonk, but perhaps false information gives people something to work with. (And, of course, as we have seen, it's quite easy to twist false information into hardcore beliefs.)

@deanc: well, coercive tactics that don't involve bodily harm get results. Economic sanctions, arguably. I don't think that torture is based solely around fear, but I agree that fear and intimidation is a large portion of why torture is effective at psychologically undermining an adversary.

And no, I don't think you're understanding what I'm getting at, because I'm certainly not dancing. Maybe it's because you're constraining the perceived goals of torture to pure psychological outcomes -- as I stated, there's the possibility of a 'useful' response from a victim, not just a 'desired' response. I believe that's why current American policy makers pursue this stuff. It's definitely not efficient, but the fact remains that it is a viable option (for fear, intimidation, information transfer, whatever), to whatever degree we want to debate.

My question remains; what is the viable option? If not torture, then what? What is the alternative? There has to be something better, something that we can agree with while we sleep at night. Obviously, there are definite problems with whether or not something is morally reprehensible. But if there is no other option, what's to prevent people (and not just the United States) from going on with torture?
posted by peeet at 10:00 PM on November 15, 2007


A better argument against torture is that it's wrong. It's can't ever be disproven.

I mean it can't. God I suck.
posted by delmoi at 10:06 PM on November 15, 2007


In WWII, we treated POWs well, and often they told us valuable information.

More on that here: Fort Hunt's Quiet Men Break Silence on WWII
posted by homunculus at 11:23 PM on November 15, 2007


Rendition Victim Tries Again
posted by homunculus at 11:29 PM on November 15, 2007


Good links here. This is why I read mefi.
posted by jouke at 12:06 AM on November 16, 2007


A better argument against torture is that it's wrong.

That's not an argument.
posted by magic curl at 1:13 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


The paranoid and cowardly will always find an excuse for torture. The same applies to landmines, cluster bombs, extra-judicial killings and any other state-sponsored evil you can think of. If you don't accept that they should be absolutely, non-negotiably off limits, then you have to accept that their use will be commonplace.
posted by teleskiving at 3:18 AM on November 16, 2007


I always thought that if you're doing something that you aren't willing to do in public, then it's wrong.

In other words, only cockroaches fear sunlight. If you're running from the light of public scrutiny, then you're a cockroach.
posted by Irontom at 7:24 AM on November 16, 2007


experience that speaks directly to the present.

What does it mean that I read that as "speaks directly to the president?"

Thanks for the link -good stuff
posted by pointystick at 7:41 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't think they wanted me to talk, really. I don't think they wanted me to say anything. It was just their way of having a bit of fun, the swines.

Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras.
posted by Phanx at 8:16 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


If one of the arguments is that it works to create a climate of fear and domination (and I agree that it does), what about the resultant defiance? After being dominated, many people begin to resist. And then harsher crackdowns simply result in greater push-back from the victims. It's a fun cycle, and highly effective in accomplishing... nothing at all.
posted by bassjump at 10:33 AM on November 16, 2007


“The torture referred to in its current discussion has more to do with gaining information than in getting a confession of guilt.”

No. It really doesn’t.
Pretty much, yeah, it’s about invention of plots and confirmation of self-derived prophecies.

“But if it didn't 'work' (i.e. get results above what might be obtained through lack of torture), why would people torture? To simply be sadists?”

Instill terror in the subject population. Coerce conformity.
Money and power reason enough?

“At some point, there needs to be a method of efficient coercion.”

There are many. Interrogators know this.

“And unfortunately for the world, there are still plenty of people who believe in -brute- coercion, rather than some uninjurious alternative.”

Some people believe they know all about brain surgery as well. Doesn’t make them neurosurgeons.

“But is some (possibly false) information worse than no information at all?”

Without question. The worst possible state of affairs is thinking you know something contrary to the reality of the situation. It is better to know that you have an unknown on your hands and speculate intelligently.

“doesn't the fear and domination get results?”

Yes. The results are totalitarianism.

“who benefits -- the actor constrained by what is seen as good or bad, or the actor who sees everything as permissible?”

Balanced cooperation achieves a more sustainable and viable and most importantly sucessful (that is - survival) strategy than universal antagonism.
This can be proven in game theory.

“My question is, how can these two goals (achieving ends and maintaining integrity) be reconciled? There has to be a way, and it certainly isn't from torture.”

I’d argue your confusion stems from granting that those ends aren’t illusory. Maintaining integrity is an end in and of itself. The ends of fighting terrorism and so forth as portrayed in the media and as commonly understood are not only vastly overblown (and, in some ways, vastly underrated) but the methodical and diplomatic approach - that is - communication, is the most often used, and most often successful tactic.
Anyone who’s done any real work in counterterrorism will tell you the same. 99% of the time there’s no need for guys to bust in with MP5s. The 1% of the time it is necessary is obvious.
There is no eigenstate between those two situations where we don’t really know and maybe it’s this and blah blah blah so we need to torture someone. It does not happen. The ends you’re thinking of are manufactured political conveniances, not real world situations.

“My question remains; what is the viable option?”
There are myriad interrogation techniques that are extremely sucessful that don’t involve torture. Communication is used to determine what motivates the subject. Once you have that, you know what they want and typically - and it’s the nature of the situation of the terrorist that drives this in that they’re so powerless they can’t utilize any other tactic - you can give it to them.
Sleeping nights, that’s up to you. You can either listen to me, and people here like me who have absolutely nothing to gain from bullshitting you or buy into what politicians tell you despite the fact you’re more likely to be hit by lightning than die in a terrorist attack.
In fact, you’re more likely to killed - by a friend or family member, than die by terrorists. You’re clothes are more likely to catch on fire, or you fall in the tub, or fall off a ladder or freeze to death or die from heatstroke or drown.
You’re more likely to get hit by a train, and they’re on friggin rails.
But it’s your call, pal.


“In absence of anything but anecdotal evidence I'm not willing to argue either way on that, except perhaps to say that some of what you might consider not working (false confessions, questionable intelligence) might be considered working by would-be torturers.”

There is more than anecdotal evidence that it doesn’t work. Additionaly, when we define “work” as efficatious in retrieving valid useful information the veil falls. Torture is utterly useless in deriving accurate information - if for no other reason than the extreme stress inhibits accurate recall.

Anything I’ve said here making sense or have I lost you? Lots more there, but that should be enough from the subject side.

For the interrogator - one of the most common pitfalls is to allow himself to be led by his own preconceptions. A willy subject will feed on this and let the interrogator determine the lie - the interrogators own lie - that will satisfy him best.
Seen “Usual Suspects?” Classic example.

“And then harsher crackdowns simply result in greater push-back from the victims”

Yeah. And some of that could be by design bassjump


Torture isn’t right. It isn’t even wrong. (To borrow from Feynman)
posted by Smedleyman at 4:19 PM on November 16, 2007


(Although it appears to keep the Jews from using the blood of Christian infants for their unleavened bread, so...)
posted by Smedleyman at 4:20 PM on November 16, 2007


“Once you have that, you know what they want and typically - and it’s the nature of the situation of the terrorist that drives this in that they’re so powerless they can’t utilize any other tactic - you can give it to them.”

To be more precise - you can manipulate them. Or render their motives moot. Or find a compromise if you like. Vast range here, really. And hell, you can just pay them off. Damn few people who, if you get them laid on a very regular basis, hand them loads of cash and set them up in business somewhere with a new ID wouldn’t sell out everyone in a given organization.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:26 PM on November 16, 2007


It gets results that can only be obtained through torture-- namely creating a climate of fear and intimidation and fulfills the desire to exert violent power over others.

That argument/realization isn't going to end torture, either, since the vast majority of the population seems to want to see only black hats and white hats, and further believe that they can tell which is which (that that the black hats deserve whatever we can possibly do to them). Furthermore, far too many people seem overly fond of omelette analogies, since their son/daughter/wife/husband isn't all that likely to end up one of the broken eggs.
posted by dreamsign at 9:04 PM on November 16, 2007


peeet: ... doesn't the fear and domination get results?

I think you're overestimating the importance of force, i.e. violent coercion (torture being an extreme example), and underestimating the importance of consent. Power depends on both.

Louis Halle, The Cold War as History (1967):
... real power is always something far greater than military power alone. A balance of power is not a balance of military power alone: it is, rather, a balance in which military power is one element. Even in its crudest aspect, power represents a subtle and intimate combination of force and consent. No stable government has ever existed, and no empire has ever become established, except with an immensely preponderant measure of consent on the part of those who were its subjects. That consent may be a half-grudging consent; it may be a consent based in part on awe of superior force; it may represent love, or respect, or fear, or a combination of the three. Consent, in any case, is the essential ingredient in stable power--more so than physical force, of which the most efficient and economical use is to increase consent.

By using physical force in such a way as alienates consent, one constantly increases the requirements of physical force to replace the consent that has been alienated. A vicious spiral develops that, continued, ends in the collapse of power. If the Government in Washington had undertaken to use the atomic bomb to control the world it would surely have ended by incurring the fanatical hostility of the world's peoples, with incalculable consequences. It would have found itself trying to dominate the world by terror alone; it would have found itself driven to ever greater extremes of ruthlessness; and the requirements of a totally ruthless policy would, at last, have compelled it to establish a tyranny over the American people as well as over the rest of mankind. At some point early in this progress, however, it would have fallen and been replaced.
Alberto Mora, former Navy General Counsel, Republican, and Bush supporter, giving the 2006 Hans Morgenthau Lecture, describes how US use of torture has severely damaged US interests:
I have asserted that our policy of cruelty has harmed our nation's legal, foreign policy, and national security interests. Let's examine how it has done so and what the damage has been. ...

Cruelty created a deep legal fissure between ourselves and our traditional allies, because none of them would follow the United States into the swamp of cruelty. And cruelty has exposed those U.S. policymakers and officials engaged in the practice to potential civil and criminal liability overseas. It has engendered a probability that litigation and prosecution overseas targeting U.S. officials will complicate our international relations for years to come. ...

Our use of the term "war" should not confuse us into thinking that this conflict will be won primarily by military means. The geographic dispersion of our enemies, the difficulty in locating them, and the underlying ideological nature of our adversaries' actions—all point to a conflict in which our military actions must necessarily be subordinated to our political strategy.

This political strategy should be geared to building and maintaining large, unified alliances capable of cooperating across this spectrum of conflict. We will not be able to build this alliance unless we are able to articulate a set of consistent political objectives, and prosecute the war using methods consistent with these objectives. We will not be able to build the alliance either, unless we construct a common legal architecture with our traditional allies. ...

Almost every European politician who sought to ally himself and his country with the United States in the war on terror incurred a political penalty—or experienced political difficulties, as Blair and Aznar demonstrated—as a result of that allegiance. And, because cruel treatment of prisoners constituted a criminal act in every European jurisdiction, there must be few European government officials, including military intelligence or police officials, who do not ask themselves at some point whether cooperating with the United States in the war on terror might not make them accomplices or abettors in criminal activity or expose them to civil liability.

All of these factors contributed to the difficulties our nation has experienced in forging the strongest possible alliance in this war. Because this is so, we consequently weakened our defenses. Whatever intelligence we obtain through the use of harsh interrogation tactics, on the whole these policies and practices greatly damaged our overall effectiveness and impaired our military intelligence capabilities in the war on terror.
posted by russilwvong at 11:48 PM on November 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


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