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Ask Auntie Pinko

November 10, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I don't want the military, the CIA or anyone else to practice torture in my name. I believe in the Geneva Conventions. Bush says the CIA shouldn't be required to conform to the Geneva Conventions because when they have someone to interrogate, that person shouldn't be too sure they won't be tortured. Or at least, I think that's his argument. As usual, he sounds like someone brain-damaged trying to explain his so-called "reasoning." Or maybe it's Uncle Dickie's reasoning.

But wherever it comes from, it seems he wants accused or suspected "terra-ists" in CIA custody (or in the custody of whoever the CIA is paying to do their dirty work this week) to think they might be tortured. Presumably, they'll be so afraid of it they'll talk. Will they? Is this a valid way to get evildoers to rat out their friends and prevent their nefarious plans from succeeding?

Nick from New York

Dear Nick,

Like many people who write to Auntie Pinko, I suspect you've already made up your mind about the answer to this question. And I doubt that you expect Auntie to disagree with you, in this case - which is just as well, since I probably won't. But thank you for the opportunity to discuss the matter here on Democratic Underground!

The notion of "keeping options open" for the interrogation of suspected terrorists is flawed in so many ways Auntie hardly knows where to start. The obvious one comes first: the reliability of information obtained using such methods is always highly suspect. Even when you have some information already, and believe that you can use what you already know to assess the accuracy of new information, you can easily be wrong, especially in the shadowy, complex world of interlocking criminal conspiracies to commit acts of terror. Using despicable tactics that dehumanize both the subject and the interrogator to obtain information of dubious (at best) value just isn't worth it.

Apologists for the use of torture like to advance the hypothetical case of the terrorist captured at 9:00 AM who (presumably) knows the location of the suitcase "dirty bomb" that's scheduled to explode somewhere in midtown Manhattan at noon. There's "no time" to convince him or her using "other methods," so let's go ahead and insert the burning slivers under the fingernails, or attach the electrodes, right? The evildoer holds out for an hour or so (s/he is a very committed evildoer, fully prepared to die for her/his cause) and then gasps out the location - a very obscure, difficult to access spot, where such a suitcase could, indeed, be left undetected for some time.

It takes some time to get the SWAT team there, of course... and when they finally arrive, there's nothing there. By that time it's eleven-forty-five, and even if you can torture another location from your suspect, you don't have time to find and defuse the dirty bomb anyway. It's a silly argument from the git-go, in other words. There is NO way of stopping a torture subject from giving false information, any more than there is a way of stopping someone committed to dying in the course of committing terrorist acts.

"Truth serums" are no assurance of useful and accurate information, either. Subjects under the influence of drugs are less likely to be able to maintain consciously prepared fictions, but they are also unlikely to distinguish fiction from reality, and can easily distort or mislead without intending to do so. From a practical standpoint, both torture and truth serums are of highly limited usefulness in obtaining reliable information.

So why do people continue to use such tactics? To intimidate. To sow fear. To excite terror. To suppress resistance or opposition.

What kind of people do this? Tyrants. Dictators. Authoritarians. Those who are committed to imposing their will on others, even at the cost of their own humanity.

The ethics of using interrogation and indoctrination to obtain information, achieve goals, change minds and opinions exist in a large gray area. Few people would argue with the basic legitimacy of law enforcement professionals questioning suspected criminals to obtain or verify evidence of crimes, or to gather information that might prevent or hinder criminal acts. Society's tolerance for the methods used in such questioning, however, varies widely depending on the specific circumstances.

In fighting crime and criminal acts, we expect - indeed, we demand - that the agents we empower through our government act with zeal and diligence, and employ every legitimate tool available. We've generally shown a high social tolerance for a certain amount of psychological pressure when there is good reason to believe the stakes are high. We have even shown ourselves willing to excuse a certain amount of physical pressure in very high-stakes cases. Conducting interrogations in environments of physical discomfort, intimidation, the use of good-cop/bad-cop pressures, even the occasional "slapping around" a recalcitrant suspect show up regularly as tacitly approved, if not always judicially legitimate, tactics in films and television shows.

Such tactics are usually further legitimated by showing high levels of incriminating evidence or behavior against the individuals being subjected to such techniques. The watcher of the TV show or film feels a sense of cathartic vindication when the scummy child molester is backhanded by the hardworking detective goaded past endurance. But reality is often very different. Television and movie cameras show us a "reality" that is very rarely obvious in the real world. It's easy for law-enforcement personnel to make judgments, and indeed, experienced officer are often good at making accurate judgments. Someone they believe guilty may indeed be guilty - I admit freely that knowing several good, conscientious law officers, I'm predisposed to trust their assessments in many cases.

But that means nothing in terms of our Constitution, which demands that only the judges and juries appointed by due constitutional process make such decisions. This is just as true for a CIA officer as for the beat cop in Auntie Pinko's little country town. The CIA officer is part of a different chain of command and a different hierarchy with different rules and techniques - but in the final analysis, s/he is still subject to the restrictions of the Constitution, which demands a presumption of innocence until guilt is established by due process. And the Constitution applies to everyone under American jurisdiction, citizens or not.

There was good reason for the framers of our Constitution to be so clear about this matter. Many of them had personal experience of authorities who did not hesitate to apply any methods they wanted to achieve their personal ends, without any restrictions or legal protections, without recourse for their victims, whether 'guilty' or innocent. The framers of our Constitution designed a set of restrictions designed to protect the humanity and dignity of everyone - because they had seen what kinds of inhuman monsters resulted from the unchecked assumption and application of authority.

If we value the "original intent" of our Founders, we cannot allow specious arguments about psychological threats, "keeping options open," and appeals to "protect citizens" from suspected evil-doers, to demolish that careful structure of law and dignity. And we cannot allow those we empower to protect us from menace to become the exact kind of monsters we expect them to protect us from.

So you're on the right track, Nick, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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