Faster, Please!

The Torture Question

It’s not a simple matter, not at all. It’s so complicated that it’s what the Europeans call “transversal,” it cuts across established political and ideological lines. Haven’t you been surprised to find presumed righties rejecting aggressive interrogation and presumed lefties accepting it?

One of my gurus in things military is David Galula, a French officer who fought in Algeria and then went to Harvard to write one of the classics on counterinsurgency. Before going to Algeria, he hated torture and vowed to do everything he could to end the practice. He never lost his hatred of it — for what it did to the victims and also what it did to the practitioners — but slowly, reluctantly, he was compelled to admit that it sometimes works. This was a terrible realization. It’s one of the things that makes torture such a horrible question. You can be against it, as Galula was, and as I am, and still admit that maybe there are times…

I have written against torture, on the grounds that a man will do and say many things in order to stop the pain. He will often invent information that he thinks will make you stop. I think that’s intuitively obvious, and it seriously undermines the case for torture, as for methods that may fall short of someone’s definition of “torture” but still inflict physical and/or psychological pain.

On the other hand, sometimes it works. I have met professional interrogators who are adamant that torture is never necessary. They say that a skilled interrogator, or team of interrogators, can do the job. It may take a while, but they will get there. I believe them. And I wish we could close the discussion there. Except there’s the Jack Bauer scenario, a WMD is set to kill lots and lots of us, and you’ve got a prisoner who knows the whole story. He refuses to discuss it. At all. Interrogation is a non-starter. Now what?

Torture might work, and might work fast enough to save a lot of lives. Or not. I don’t know the details of the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed waterboarding, which is sometimes presented as if it were a quick fix, and sometimes as if he had to be repeatedly subjected  to it, and even so it took quite a while until he coughed up the precious information that led us to his co-conspirators. As it turned out, we had more time than we feared. Maybe a good interrogator could have broken down his resistance in an acceptable time frame. If so, would our moral universe be better if we hadn’t put him on a board and made him fear we were going to drown him? Yes, I think  so.

But suppose you don’t have the time, and suppose lives — the lives of your people — are on the line. Do you try torture?

Call it by its proper name: it’s evil (even though our “torture methods” don’t begin to compare with those commonly used by our enemies. Not remotely. There are degrees of evil, after all). Are you willing to, as Machiavelli put it so elegantly but typically brutally, “enter into evil”? He insisted that there will inevitably be times when leaders, if they want to prevail, must be willing to do it. He has rules — do it fast, do it all at once, exit evil as quickly as you can — but you will have done an evil thing and you will have tarnished your soul. And the national soul as well.

Machiavelli believes in Christian virtue and he believes every man should strive to live a virtuous life. “Entering into evil” is the opposite, and yet … and yet, there will be those moments when it is necessary if you are to prevail.

I think that Jewish law states that if survival is at stake, then all methods are acceptable. Stop at nothing, survival is paramount. And I rather wish we could close the discussion there, except that when we say “stop at nothing,” are there to be no limits at all?

It’s hard to establish limits once you’ve accepted the suspension of the normal moral code. There isn’t any room for moral virtue when you’ve entered into evil. That’s often the situation in war. The Almighty ordered Saul to totally exterminate the Amalekites, every last one of them, and their flocks, and even the soil on which they lived was to be salted. No limits there. Saul couldn’t bring himself to do so much evil, and he let the king of the Amalekites live.  Fast forward to the book of Esther, when the Jews face extermination by Haman the Amalekite, chief counselor to the king of Persia.

Which is rather like Jack Bauer’s dilemma, isn’t it? If you try to mitigate the pain you inflict, you might get us all blown up. Paradoxically, refusing to enter into evil may either result in more pain for you and yours — and survival itself placed at risk — but it may even lead you to commit more evil yourself.

We’re there, aren’t we? All our striving to do the right thing by our prisoners — from compassionate treatment (including observance of their dietary laws) and release of many of them (from Gitmo, for example), to generous provision of legal assistance, and of course no torture — has made it so difficult to manage the situation, that we’re not taking many prisoners nowadays. We’re just killing them when and where we find them. In the process, some innocents are also slaughtered, no matter how careful we are, no matter how accurate our bullets, bombs and missiles are, and no matter how many lawyers have to sign off on the selection of targets.

Is torture — or at least the sort of things we have done to prisoners — worse?  I don’t think  so. And, as I hope I’ve shown, I think that any attempt to establish a firm set of rules is likely doomed to fail. I think that it all depends. Under “normal” circumstances — even in war — if we can avoid torture, we should. But, like Galula, I have sadly and reluctantly come to the conclusion that there may well be circumstances in which we may have to do terrible things in order to prevail, and perhaps even to survive. We can’t know in advance what those circumstances will be, and we’re going to have to rely on the wisdom of leaders — and sometimes the wisdom of some fairly low-level military officers — to make good decisions. When they fail, we will punish them.

So I don’t have an easy answer, the best I can do is this: in general, no torture, or anything that comes close to it. Go with other methods. Be willing to pay a price on the battlefield on those (rare) occasions when torture would have worked faster and saved some lives. But in those instances when the stakes are high, when the usual, civilized methods just won’t do, then you have to consider all the options. And be willing to stain your soul. You chose to get into this, after all. That’s part of the price.