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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.