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Torture Begets Worse Torture

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It’s been said before that “the point of torture is torture,” but I don’t think we fully understand the extent to which this is true, nor the extent to which the moral and utilitarian arguments against torture are intertwined. The easiest way to explain what I’m getting at here is through a hypothetical.

In this hypothetical, the suspect is someone who almost certainly possesses some unknown quantity of information that can be helpful in rooting out terrorism. After the suspect refuses to provide information in response to initial non-coercive questioning, the interrogation moves on to measures that are coercive but perhaps fall in the gray area of what we would call “torture.”

The suspect talks immediately as a result of the coercion, and for purposes of this hypothetical, we will say that the information provided is accurate. After providing that initial information, the suspect refuses to provide anything else. What should the interrogators do next? Do they accept that the suspect has no further information to provide? Not likely – after all, it took some form of coercion to get the suspect to provide the initial information, so there’s no reason to think that the suspect has nothing further to provide. More likely, I think, the interrogators conclude that the only way to get more information is to revisit the methods that got them more information in the first place.

But what if the suspect refuses to provide more information when those methods are used again? Will the interrogators go back to being nice, knowing that the information they got came only after they used more coercive measures? Not likely. Instead, it would seem to me, the natural response is to conclude that the suspect has learned to tolerate the initially successful level of coercion, and so the only way of obtaining more information is to make the interrogation increasingly coercive. Again, the suspect talks and again we will assume that the information provided will eventually prove to be accurate.

But again, the suspect eventually refuses to provide any additional information. Now, the suspect has a track record of withholding information even after coercion is tried, and of providing information when ever-more coercive techniques are used. So what is likely to be the interrogator’s response? If you guessed “stronger coercion,” you guessed right. But this time the suspect continues to refuse to provide information, and so the interrogator adopts even harsher methods until the suspect provides more. At what point does the interrogator conclude that the suspect has nothing more to provide? If the suspect provides more, how does the interrogator distinguish between what is accurate and what is a lie?

And that’s the problem. When coercion fails, it will only result in more coercion, and when it succeeds, it will only result in more coercion. It not only lacks any means of distinguishing between good information and bad information (the basis for utilitarian arguments against torture), but it also cannot distringuish between knowledge and lack of knowledge. And even torture’s most ardent proponents would, I think, acknowledge the immorality of using coercion on someone without useful information. In sum, by engaging in coercive interrogation we obtain unreliable intelligence; because we obtain unreliable intelligence, we will inevitably engage in more coercive – and undeniably immoral – interrogation, which will result in more unreliable intelligence, and so forth.

And that’s what I mean when I say that the moral and utilitarian arguments against torture are intertwined. What legal barriers such as the Army Field Manual or the Geneva Conventions do is to provide a stopping point past which we effectively presume that further intelligence will be unreliable, and at which we must assume that the suspect has no further information to provide that they would be unwilling to provide in the absence of coercion.

Thinking more about this, I suppose the logic of this post doesn’t lend itself well to the hypothetical (but almost entirely non-existent in reality) ticking time-bomb situation where you have intelligence that the suspect has specific information about a specific plot. In such a circumstance, the torture would not beget more torture once successful because the interrogation would be aimed at obtaining a specific piece of information along the lines of “where is the bomb,” or “when is the attack,” or “who is the bomber.” BUT….it’s easy to see how the logic described in this post would lead to imagined ticking time bombs where the suspect provides information about a non-existent plot, leading investigators to interrogate someone else about the details of that non-existent plot under the belief that the plot is a “ticking time bomb.”

Cross-posted at Publius Endures.