Je Suis Charlie

Talking About The Efficacy Of Torture

The media is still buzzing with news of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s interrogation program – or as it’s more commonly referred to, the Torture Report. Former CIA director Michael Hayden appeared on CNN to offer a heinous defense of rectal rehydration, among other things. Dick Cheney stated unequivocally on Meet The Press that he has no regrets regarding the program and that he would “do it again in a minute.” Cheney’s defense of the program rests mainly on his conviction that he has no problem with such “enhanced interrogation” methods “so long as we achieve our objective, and our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.” It is frustrating that Cheney does not see the contradiction inherent in this argument. The report contests the idea that the CIA detention and interrogation program produced actionable intelligence. That is to say, it did not achieve its objectives. Presumably, Cheney has objections to specific interpretations that the report makes, thus justifying his position. But still, the findings of the report are corroborated by psychological and social science research that suggests that in general torture does not produce accurate results. (I provided just a few examples in a previous blog post.)

There are many who agree with Cheney and continue to defend the use of torture by the United States for reasons that I mentioned earlier. On the flip side, an equally vigorous debate has sprung up among those who are opposed to torture (both in general and in the specific case of the post/9/11 CIA program). This debate is concerned with what place efficacy has in a debate on torture. I have noticed several people on my Twitter feed are deeply concerned that we are even talking about whether such morally repugnant actions worked. They argue that this is beside the point because torture is morally wrong, against the values of the United States and thus it frankly does not matter if the program did or did not achiev its objectives. To focus on the efficacy of torture is a dangerous precedent that may validate an ethically questionable “ends justifies the means” attitude.

This perspective makes a lot of sense to me. Moreover, those expressing such a perspective are generally people whose thoughts and opinions I admire and respect. I still admire and respect these people, and read with interest most of what they post on Twitter (it’s why I’m following them) but on this point I have to disagree.

For the record, I agree with them wholeheartedly that torture is wrong and even if it had worked I would still be opposed to its use. But I have to concede that if we had solid evidence that torture worked, I think the subsequent “do the ends justifies the means?” debate is both unavoidable and, unfortunately, valid. When we talk about the Geneva Conventions, rights for prisoners of war, the distinction between combatants vs. noncombatants, and yes, torture, we are by definition engaging in a debate on where we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour during conflict. That conversation is uncomfortable and unpleasant but deeply necessary. In order to shape the norms that govern war, we have to talk about why something is unacceptable. While I wish that the use of torture would cease on the sole basis that it is morally abhorrent, that hasn’t happened. The United States is party to the UN Convention against Torture but as we have learned that hasn’t stopped the United States from torturing people. Thus, the point that torture does not work is a boon to those of us who argue against it. As Dan Drezner commented in a Washington Post piece last week, “The trouble with debating torture’s efficacy is that if it turns out that information extracted from torture can be tactically useful, then advocates will be able to make their case more effectively in public discourse. On the other hand, if the debate takes place strictly on the moral and ethical plane, anti-torture advocates will feel on firmer ground.”

Yesterday, in an article for Slate, Jamelle Bouie discussed another reason why torture is difficult for the United States government to disavow for purely moral reasons. The nature of American public opinion with respect to incarceration and torture is largely retributive and punitive. This attitude was evident in the online conversation that occurred after the torture report was published. Many individuals expressed a profound lack of remorse for the tortured on the basis that they deserved it. It seems unlikely then that arguing against torture for moral reasons will succeed in changing public opinion.

It’s a bit depressing to think that we have to substantiate an anti-torture stance with empirical evidence but such is the case with polarizing issues. Sometimes setting emotion aside and dealing with the pragmatic is the only way to break gridlock since both sides usually believe they are in the moral right. The process of getting to policy that is both effective and morally sound can involve a lot of uncomfortable debate like whether or not an end justifies a means. In the case of torture, if it can be demonstrated that an end was not achieved at all, then perhaps we will have greater success advocating for its abolition.

I’ll Ride With You

It’s been a rough few hours for Sydney, Australia. Monday morning an Iranian refugee and self-styled Sunni cleric (with a long rap sheet) took a cafe and its occupants hostage. While the situation was unfolding, a social media movement also began to take shape. The hashtag #IllRideWithYou began trending on Twitter as Aussies offered to ride public transportation with those wearing religious attire in a preemptive counter to bigotry and Islamophobia.

It apparently began when a woman noticed a fellow train passenger removing her hijab. She responded by reaching out to the other woman and offering to walk with her. Someone else offered to do the same on their commute and the hashtag was born. According to Twitter Australia, there were 40,00 Tweets within two hours and it has been growing since. I hope the movement isn’t purely viral and that those wanting or needing support on the streets of Australia today are finding it.

From my perspective, as I sit far away watching the news, it’s comforting to see such displays of empathy, solidarity and clear-mindedness as tragedy unfolds. It reminds me of the incident in Cold Lake, Alberta after the Ottawa shooting in October where community members came together to wash away hateful words that vandals had sprayed on a local mosque.

Of course, it isn’t the answer to radicalization or bigotry or violence. But it’s a much needed reminder that compassion exists, even in the face of such ugliness.

Talking About Torture On Twitter

This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 528-page executive summary of its report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Unsurprisingly, there has been much discussion in the media and online about the report and its findings. Twitter has been talking about it for days and #TortureReport is still trending. The beauty (and sometimes evil) of Twitter is that we are exposed to a diversity of viewpoints many of which do not reflect our own. As I have sifted through the torture report conversation, I found it curious that many of the report’s detractors dismiss its conclusions for largely the same reasons. While not necessarily representative of the opposition, two similar themes struck me as both pervasive and, quite frankly, wrong. As such, I couldn’t resist refuting them here.

It is alarming that so many people on Twitter (and elsewhere, I’m sure) defend the use of torture on the basis that because terrorists torture people, the United States must as well. Two related arguments underpin this logic. First, a retributive argument that those tortured deserved it for their association with those that perpetrated 9/11. Second, an argument that since terrorists like Al Qaeda and ISIS do not hesitate to torture, the United States should not have to restrain itself from employing similar methods.

The second argument is particularly alarming because it essentially equates American morality with terrorist morality and I am astounded that those making this argument are comfortable with that. So much of the Global War on Terror rhetoric has centered on the idea that groups like Al Qaeda hate American freedoms and values. President Bush said in his address to Congress on September 20, 2001: “We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.” If we assume that American principles are vastly different from terrorist principles, it seems very odd to argue in favour of the adoption of terrorist-like principles. I don’t always agree with Senator McCain, but his speech to the Senate this week made me want to give him a standing ovation. He makes several important points, which are made all the more powerful given his previous POW experience, but perhaps his most precise rebuttal to the such logic was as follows: “Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.

It is easier to understand the emotion behind the first argument – that those who were tortured deserved it – but the position is equally flawed. 26 of the 199 detainees who were tortured were innocent, or at least not affiliated with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. The report also claims that the program included “two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” The impulse for retribution even years after a horrific attack is natural but that doesn’t mean that it will achieve anything meaningful.

Which brings me to my final point. Most of the arguments in favour of torture rely on the faulty assumption that torture works. It doesn’t. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that torture is an ineffective intelligence gathering tool as extreme pain and stress impairs memory. The torture report itself casts significant doubt on whether any actionable intelligence was gleaned from the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees. Moreover, evidence (uncovered by a former professor and employer of mine) suggests that human rights violations like torture may actually increase violence.

There is no shortage of moral and pragmatic reasons to oppose torture. I always strive to be open-minded and rarely believe issues are black-and-white. But I have a hard time seeing the report’s findings as anything other than damning evidence of the inhumanity and inefficacy of torture. I should also note that while we condemn the use of torture by the United States, we have to remember that its allies are not without fault. Canada is one of 54 countries that participated in the CIA’s rendition program. Our hands are not clean and this report should remind all of us that fact.