Torture: Kaplan thinks Hersh evades the question–but Kaplan misses the point

Fred Kaplan in slate.com ostensibly reviews Sy Hersh’s new work on torture & Abu Ghraib in Does Torture Work? – Seymour Hersh evades the question. By Fred Kaplan. In reality he sets out once again, just in case anyone missed it the first 10,000 times that torture apologists made it, the argument we’ve all heard by now: torture is/may be effective sometimes, and if so, shouldn’t we use it?

Torture to produce a confession (“Yes, I am a terrorist”) almost certainly is useless; at some point of pain, many people would confess to anything. But torture to elicit specific information (Who told you to do this? Where did the meeting take place? Who else is in your cell? What are they planning to blow up tomorrow?) sometimes will do—clearly, has done—the job. If it hasn’t, many times over the centuries, then why do so many regimes engage in it? Some no doubt do it for the kicks, but they’re not all purely sadists.

Kaplan suggests that we need to begin answering this fundamental question: Is torture effective in some instances? for instance, torturing high-level operatives who reasonably seem likely to have information.

Kaplan thinks Hersh evades the question in his new book, but Kaplan is actually missing the point. The rules against torture are not based on the lack of efficacy of torture. We rarely forbid the government to do the inefficient. [This point could be heavily footnoted by history and law.] The rules against torture are based on the knowledge that torture is most effective as a tool for terrorizing the populace, and that as such, this tool is too dangerous to be permitted.

A few salient points as I work through this issue:

  1. Regimes have engaged and continue to engage in torture to elicit confessions, although even by Kaplan’s admission, this is ineffective.
  2. Even if states are attempting to be efficient and effective, they may nevertheless be wrong in their information. For instance, assume that torture to elicit information is actually ineffective. Nevertheless, governments may operate under false information and presumptions. Ladies and gentlement, I give you global climate change as Exhibit A. Efficacy is, alas, no guarantee of sound evidentiary-based decision-making. (Point of interest: torture has, in fact, been shown to be ineffective for gathering accurate information!)
  3. Torture is effective, although not in eliciting accurate information or confessions. State-based torture is highly effective in intimidating the populace. So regimes have a real, highly effective reason to engage in torture regardless of its effectiveness in eliciting information or confessions &mdash maintenance of their own power.

    Individual torturers may believe that the purpose is to elicit information — indeed, I imagine that most torturers cloak their own actions to themselves, in part, as based not on sadism, or pure abdication of moral responsibility, but on the mental jujitsu that following orders will lead to some greater good because the torture produces information that contributes to the general welfare. This is not to dispute the results of the Stanford experiments or other similar work showing that guard-roles inevitably produce mental disorders, anxiety, and abuse of power.

    But in looking at torture, one wants to look at its real purpose — what is achieved by the inclusion of torture in the arsenal of tools available to a government. Confessions? Admittedly not useful. Accurate information? Kaplan contests it, but no, torture doesn’t get there. What torture is undeniably successful at producing is an intimidated populace, and the maintenance of state power. One need look no further than the obvious for any state’s justification for torturing those under its power.

    The real purpose of torture is to maintain power. Torture and state-murder are the most naked expressions of the fundamental principle that government is based on the exercise of compulsion and power over the governed.