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Friday, October 05, 2007

Torture for Ethical Dummies

Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country. We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.
-- President George W. Bush, June 22, 2004

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article that proves the above statement a lie.

When the Justice Department publicly declared torture "abhorrent" in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations.

But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales's arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.

A secret legal opinion? WTF is that? A more honest description might be "a legal defense, loaded and ready to fire, on the off-chance that we wind up facing charges over this."

During his confirmation hearing, future (and former) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave a hint of the administrations' mindset when it came to torture. After Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested that torture might possibly be a bad thing and that we probably shouldn't do it, Gonzales said, "...I would respectfully disagree with your statement that we're becoming more like our enemy. We are nothing like our enemy, Senator. While we are struggling to try to find out at Abu Ghraib, they're beheading people like Danny Pearl and Nick Berg. We are nothing like our enemy."

So, as long as we're not sawing people's heads off, we're cool? Considering that terrorists will stop at absolutely nothing, this reasoning means that if we're willing to stop at anything -- no matter how extreme the action before we hit that limit -- then that's cool. If terrorists douse people in gasoline and light them up, we can do the same -- if we put goggles on them first, so we don't get the gas in their eyes. We are not, after all, barbarians.

Here's the thing -- torture doesn't work. The NYT story goes on to mention that accused al Qaeda #2 (there are, apparently, a whole boatload of #2s), Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was exposed to "a variety of tough interrogation tactics" which "were used about 100 times over two weeks." What we got in return was a bunch of crazy BS. Mohammed confessed to just about every terrorist act ever committed. According to the Times, "Some intelligence officers say that many of Mr. Mohammed's statements proved exaggerated or false."

The only reason he didn't confess to coordinating the sack of Rome was because no one asked him to. Any info we got from Mohammed was questionable. In the end, we were just as ignorant after the torture as we were before.

I've spent time before trying to explain why torture is wrong. But I've come to the conclusion that about 1/3 of the US population are morally and ethically retarded. There's something seriously wrong with their heads. "Freedom," "Liberty," and "Justice" are just words to them, the nationalist equivalent of "Go team!" The idea that people they don't like have human rights is ridiculous to them, since they've transformed these people into monsters in their minds -- monsters aren't human, so how can they have these "human rights?" Trying to get these brutal moral throwbacks to understand why torture is wrong is like trying to teach a monkey to play poker -- he's just going to get frustrated and start throwing his crap at you.

Animal behaviorists have a term they use; "theory of mind." Theory of mind describes an animal like a dog or cat or squirrel that understands other animals experience the world in much the same way they do. They understand that if getting bit by others hurts them, then biting another hurts that other. Somehow, we wound up with about 1/3 of the american public losing theory of mind. They have no concept of "other" and don't understand that what you allow to happen to one person can be allowed to happen to themselves. They seem to believe that something can only be unjust when it happens to them.

So, if they're incapable of understanding why torture is wrong, let's explain why torture is stupid. Because it doesn't work. It can't work and it's stupid to think it can. Behavioral psychologists use two terms to describe the reactions to punishment and reward -- "moving away from pain" and "moving toward pleasure." Both are instinctive. You snap your hand back when you accidentally burn it and you don't want to sit in the less than comfortable chair -- you prefer the La-Z-Boy and you'll use the La-Z-Boy whenever you get the chance.

Torture is entirely moving away from pain. The problem here is that the "movement" isn't predictable -- when I snap my hand back from the flame, there's nothing to stop me from knocking over a lamp. If someone's lying and I torture them, there's no guarantee that the story they tell me afterward will be true. They're just trying to move as far away from pain as they can. All I'm doing is giving them an incentive to tell me a different story. There really is no incentive to tell the truth. The torturee (if that's a word) is human and, therefore, a reasoning being. He knows that I'm ignorant of the truth -- that's why I'm torturing him -- and he knows that I have no way of determining what is true and what isn't. I may want the truth, but he wants to tell me something that'll stop the torture. We're not both playing the same game and "winning" is defined differently for both of us. Even if I've completely broken my victim's will, our goals are not the same. He can be both compliant and lying.

Worse, if he is telling the truth or doesn't know the truth and I keep torturing him, he'll be absolutely, 100% guaranteed to lie. For him, this is compliance -- saying what he thinks will appease me. In other words, there's no way to force someone to tell the truth, but you can force them to lie. As an investigative tool, this is pretty damned worthless. If you tortured me long enough, I'd sign a confession saying I'd ordered the Nazi invasion of Poland. Hell, I might even believe it.

There's a reason that confessions and testimony under duress are inadmissable in court -- because there's damned good chance that it's complete BS. The law is a logical process for uncovering truth. Such dodgy data has no place in a logical process and acting as if it does is illogical -- not to mention irrational. But logic and reason are, hands down, the absolute best and most reliable way to arrive at the truth. Torture simply cannot lead us there.

So, if you're one of those people who doesn't understand that rights are universal -- theory of mind, again -- that allowing torture means abandoning the principles that this nation has stood by for over two centuries, that fighting to defend ourselves with torture is the same as standing for nothing, then consider that torture is a tremendous waste of time. It doesn't work, because it can't work. There is no truthtelling button you can hit on a human. There's no way you can control someone else's mind to that degree -- we're just not built that way.

Not only is using torture wrong, it's irrational.


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