In the comments to this typically sharp post by Chris, fellow-Sharpener Phil and I have been debating torture. Among other things: what it is about torture that makes it inappropriate. Phil (rightly) questions its reliability in generating decent evidence:
[There’s] a big slice of evidence obtained under torture Ã¢â‚¬â€ probably 65 or 70% Ã¢â‚¬â€ that’s just not trustworthy. Then you’ve got people who are held under suspicion of crime, and are interrogated, but are also tortured to the point of crushing them. They’ll say anything to make it stop, so we can forget about what they say as well. That’s probably another 25% of torture evidence ruled out *as evidence*, without even needing to think about ethics.
That leaves the category of genuine attempts to extract information by torture. Some of the victims won’t know anything, but will say whatever you want to make it stop: bad information. Some of them won’t know anything that you don’t already know, but will come under pressure to make up something different to make it stop: bad information.
Put all that together, and how often is the victim being tortured for information he is able to give up Ã¢â‚¬â€ one in a hundred? How much torture evidence is actually going to be good Ã¢â‚¬â€ 1%? Even if we assume that evidence obtained by torture is ethically OK, it’s a ludicrously bad bet *as evidence*.
In other words, torture just isn’t rational or efficient. It’s a ludicrously bad bet as evidence. Phil’s is a far more eloquent version of an argument I made here, quoting former FBI agent Dan Coleman:
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to someone whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been deprived of his clothes?Ã¢â‚¬Â he asked. Ã¢â‚¬Å“HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to be ashamed, and humiliated, and cold. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no value in it.Ã¢â‚¬Â … Due process made detainees more compliant, not less, Coleman said. … He added, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Brutalization doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t work. We know that.”
All very true, but it’s a line I now regret taking. For a start, it’s redundant. Using Phil’s plausible estimate of torture’s effectiveness (1%), let’s set up a game. Say we could torture 100 suspects, with the prospect of finding one terrorist and saving 50 rail passengers. Should we? Most people, applying Phil’s 1% rule, would reject that.
Say, though, that we credibly feared a nuclear terrorist attack. It’s possible, maybe even likely if we stretch the time-horizon far enough. Should we then torture those 100 suspects, if it could save a million others? Of course, most of the evidence would be shit, but there’s a chance (64% using Phil’s maths) of averting gargantuan mass murder. Should we proceed? The answer for all except crude utilitarians ought still to be no. Not because of the low effectiveness rate of torture Ã¢â‚¬â€ but because torture fundamentally breaches human rights, including but not exclusively the presumption of innocence. The effectiveness of torture Ã¢â‚¬â€ be it 1%, 0.1% or 10% Ã¢â‚¬â€ is irrelevant. To demonstrate this, keep increasing the number of potential terrorist victims. You’ll eventually reach a number where the crude calculus of effectiveness starts to look attractive. But ask yourself if you’re still happy to see 99 or 199 or 999 people needlessly tortured.
So, we can’t properly critique torture with an appeal to efficacy Ã¢â‚¬â€ we need ethics. Ethics have to be the primary argument. But that’s not all: objecting to torture on the grounds of efficacy isn’t just redundant, it’s dangerous. What if a more effective means of torture could be found? Say it raised the effectiveness rate to 25%. Is torture now more acceptable? You’d probably only need to break three innocent lives to find your terrorist. Ethics still say no Ã¢â‚¬â€ but Phil’s effectiveness argument… I’m not sure.
Further, say you personally know a suspect is guilty. Maybe you witnessed something. You also know his exploitable phobia, which raises the effectiveness of torture to 50%. Torture away? If all you have to worry about is effectiveness, you’re on to a winner. But ethical objections to torture still stand, no matter how effective it is.
This is why our primary objection to torture can’t be practical. Employing practical objections opens the door to the logic of the Gonzales memo. It collapses too easily into accepting torturing the self-confessed and the guilty. Even though it’s true that torture doesn’t work, and the occasional Lord does need reminding of that, it’s not an argument we should be satisfied with.