September 13, 2006


Caption: This man practices tough interrogation on a toy monkey.

Last week was an interesting one for people following the torture debate in the US (and for those who think it's pretty twisted that there even is a torture debate).

The Associated Press reported that the Army issued a new field manual that

bans torture and degrading treatment of prisoners, for the first time specifically mentioning forced nakedness, hooding and other procedures that have become infamous during the five-year-old war on terror....

It also explicitly bans beating prisoners, sexually humiliating them, threatening them with dogs, depriving them of food or water, performing mock executions, shocking them with electricity, burning them, causing other pain and a technique called "water boarding" that simulates drowning, said Lt. John Kimmons, Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence.

That was the good news. The bad news was that, as the New York Times put it:

Many of the harsh interrogation techniques repudiated by the Pentagon on Wednesday would be made lawful by legislation put forward by the Bush administration. And the courts would be forbidden from intervening.

Actually, soldiers have a better reason than most to oppose making torture an official policy. It's called reciprocity or tit for tat. Once a country makes torture (we'll save the tortured discussion of the definition of torture for a little later) a standard operating procedure, it can expect others to do the same. And those most likely to wind up on the receiving end are soldiers.

There are people in the world upon whom the subtle distinction between rendition and tough interrogation and kidnapping and torture are lost.

(For a good explanation of how reciprocal norms of cooperation and/or nastiness can develop in situations of war and peace, check out Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation, which is also a good introduction to game theory.)

There are also serious questions about whether and how torture "works." As psychologist Roy F. Baumeister wrote in Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, "Torture is notably ineffective in its state goal of gaining information."

And, as Albert Camus, one of Goat Rope's patron saints, wrote of French policies in Algeria,

Torture has perhaps saved some, at the expense of honor, by uncovering thirty bombs, but at the same time it arouses fifty new terrorists who, operating in some other way and in another place, will cause the death of even more innocent people. Even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy, such a flouting of honor serves no purpose but to degrade our country in her own eyes and abroad...

He believed that "such deeds do us more harm than a hundred underground forces on the enemy's side."

Next time: When is torture torture?


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