About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, May 22, 2009

On torture

Nobody who pays even occasional attention to the news in the United States could possibly be unaware of the ongoing debate on torture as it was practiced by the US Government during the early years of the so-called war on terror, under the full knowledge and conscious endorsement of high-level officials in the Bush administration, beginning with former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It seems to me astounding that we have to have a debate at all, instead of an open and speedy prosecution of the people responsible for the policy, up to and including former President W. (and let’s not get started on the even more obvious issue of the false pretenses under which the Iraq war was started). Still, if we have to have a debate, let’s have a rational one (see how naive I am after all these years?). There are three areas of dispute that have dominated the public discourse on water boarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques used by the US on terror suspects: legal, pragmatic, and moral. Let’s take a quick look at each in turn.

The legal question: it’s pretty simple, really. The United States ratified in October 1994 the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (which was crafted ten years earlier). According to that radical organization, Amnesty International, the US is bound by its own Constitution not to engage in torture, since the Eighth Amendment clearly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” Moreover, in 1994 the US Congress passed a law (18 U.S.C. § 2340) that extends US criminal jurisdiction to acts of torture committed by a US national outside of the country. It shouldn’t take the team on Law & Order to figure out that torture is illegal in the United States, and that it is illegal for Americans to engage in torture abroad (that includes Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib). Period.

Now for the pragmatic angle: Americans are the quintessential pragmatists, both in terms of national ethos and even in strictly technical philosophical terms (think of philosophers like Dewey, James and Peirce). So one may argue that despite the transparently obvious legal case outlined above, “we live in a post-9/11 world,” as the tired fear-mongering phrase goes, and so we should change the law to reflect such circumstances. It’s a new era in which our very existence is under assault (though that is a gross exaggeration, the US isn’t Palestine or Israel), and we need all the means of defense at our disposal. Except of course, that the experts who have spoken out about torture in the past several months, including members of the FBI, CIA and the military, have repeatedly pointed out that it doesn’t work, for the simple and well understood fact that a person under torture will eventually give information — any information, including the false variety — just to be at least temporarily relieved from the pain of torture. The infamous “ticking bomb” scenario mindlessly brought up by so many Republicans is fictional (see the infamous show “24,” which has been criticized even by the US Military), just like those weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein turned out not to have possessed.

One more thing on the pragmatic question: Dick Cheney has been repeating as recently as yesterday that torture is justifiable because it has kept terrorists from attacking the US. His “reasoning” seems to be: (premise 1) We practiced torture after 9/11; (premise 2) We have not been attacked after 9/11; therefore (conclusion) Torture impeded terrorist attacks. This is so stupid that it should be hardly necessary to point out why it doesn’t work. But here we go nonetheless: First, the above is an egregious example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (after that, therefore because of that). Plenty of other things have happened since 9/11, like the Red Sox winning the World Series, or ER going off the air. Maybe those are the real reasons we haven’t been attacked. Secondly, and more seriously, perhaps some of the other things we have been doing in terms of national defense since 9/11 are actually responsible for the lack of attacks on US soil, like two wars being fought on foreign soil, or billions spent in enhanced border security. Third, and most damning of all, the Bush administration (under Cheney) ceased the use of torture in 2004. Five years later, we still haven’t been attacked. So perhaps torture has nothing to do with it?

Finally, the moral issue, which really should trump all of the above, especially in a nation with such a high (and overblown) understanding of its own moral place in history (Americans keep thinking of themselves as a shining example for the rest of civilization, just like colonial Britain and the Roman empire did. Evidently they forget that their country got started with a combination of genocide and ethnic cleansing, prospered financially on the back of slaves, has had a history punctuated by an almost uninterrupted series of wars of aggression, and has been marred by ugly civil rights strife that is not over yet). Torture is immoral because it is precisely the kind of behavior that we do not want to have others do unto us, a straightforward application of the Kantian imperative. This isn’t just a hypothetical statement: the US prosecuted, convicted and either jailed or executed Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American soldiers during World War II.

The whole point of an open, democratic, and moral society is that we try to uphold certain moral standards. Such moral standards are understood to apply to everyone everywhere, that is that we maintain them to be universal across the broader human community (and perhaps beyond, if you accept the more controversial idea of animal rights). A good measure of the morality of a society is precisely how well it holds to its principles in times of hardship. It is easy to claim the moral high ground when we enjoy peace and economic prosperity. It is poverty and war that bring forth the ugliness in human beings, and it is then that we fight our moral wars against the worst possible enemy: ourselves.

The aim of terrorism is to undermine a society, to overthrow its values and replace them with others. The 9/11 attacks resulted in the direct death of 2,974 people (excluding the hijackers). At current count, 4,299 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and 31,285 have been wounded. And that doesn’t count the deaths in Afghanistan or, of course, the civilian casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which are at least an order of magnitude greater. The combined wars in those two countries have cost us close to $860 billion dollars, and that doesn’t take into account the huge cost of homeland security. Why are we doing all this? Just so that we can keep ourselves alive? That would be insanely stupid, considering that an American is 225,409 times more likely to die in an auto accident than in a terrorist attack (it’s also twice as likely that you’ll die from being crushed by a vending machine). Hey, the debacle of the auto industry might actually save a lot more lives than waterboarding! But no, we are doing all of this because we want to preserve and improve our society, which in large part means improving our ever-evolving system of morality and expanding set of rights. Engaging in torture, or even defending the use of torture in the public forum kills that system from within. No need for further terrorist attacks.


  1. Evidently they forget that their country got started with a combination of genocide and ethnic cleansing, prospered financially on the back of slaves.Don't forget dumb luck. Once ethnic cleansing was complete, it helped to have the riches of a now-empty continent at one's disposal.

  2. Thank you, for stating so clearly, concisely and logically the arguements which I can not frame on my own. This is a great example of why I will always return to this website for inspiration; and I felt I had to say something, so again, thanks!

  3. Well written, and I agree with you on all of this except for one point.

    I believe that Cheney is making the stronger claim that he has examples of instances in which torture yielded information that was used to thwart specific planned terrorist activities -- but that he cannot reveal the details for now because they are classified.

  4. Don't forget the quintessential example that shatters any notion of a pragmatic case for tortue.

    Al Qaeda Ibn Al-Libi was being interrogated by the FBI, yielding, according to his interrogators, actionable intelligence, including information that helped to prevent an attack on the US embassy in Yemen. This was at the time that the administration was trying to "fix" - in the words of the Downing Street memo - the intelligence for an invasion of Iraq. Libi told his FBI interrogators that there was no link between al Qaeda and Iraq that he knew of.

    Growing impatient with the results, the CIA was given custody of Libi, bursting into an interrogation in progress, with an agent telling Libi that he was going to go to Egypt and that the agent was going to "f_ck" his mother. He was "renditioned" to Egypt for "further debriefing" where he was tortured into falsely confessing a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

    That claim subsequently became one of the major justifications for the invasion and soon made its way into a major speech given by President Bush.

    An account of the incident can be found in Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, with the specific passage being available on-line through Google books. The relevant links are available in the first link I gave.

  5. Aaron,

    right, but I find Cheney's comments in that respect completely bizarre. If such evidence exists, why on earth didn't *he* release it when he was VP? Would have made for a good pro-Republican move during the Presidential campaign, and the fact that he did not release any such documents makes me strongly suspect that they simply do not exist. He's bluffing.

    That said, even if Cheney is correct on that point, the legal and moral arguments still hold, of course.

  6. Cheney has virtually no credibility on such matters. I strongly suspect that his intelligence vindicating him will be of the same quality of the "intelligence" he cited during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq to demonstrate wmd's or the Iraq/al Qaeda link.

    Even if he does have some proof of torture having worked in a specific instance it no doubt can not wipe away the death and destruction that has resulted from the war in Iraq, a war justified, to a significant extent, by a tortured false confession.

  7. Well said, Massimo. I get so frustrated with people when they make that same ad hoc ergo propter hoc argument, and it is one that's been around since the invasion of Iraq, at least.

  8. ad hoc ergo propter hocShouldn't that be "post hoc, ergo propter hoc", Max?
    BTW, so-called improved border security is nothing of the sort. Fingerprinting at the borders has not caught a single terrorist. It has just alienated and pissed off the rest of the world. The 9/11 hijackers were in the USA quite legally, despite lying egregiously on their visa application forms. (One of them gave his home address as a hotel that had closed down two years earlier.) The checks in place at the time were quite sufficient, if only they had been followed instead of being ignored by lazy and demoralised embassy officials. There is no need for the current draconian measures.
    Anyway, Cheney is wrong; it's not the cancellation of ER that's caused the ack of attacks; it's the cancellation of Moonlight, surely?

  9. "Cheney has virtually no credibility on such matters."

    Case in point

  10. I can't help but wonder though, if history will look back on the appalling behaviour of the Bush administration as the turning point to, dare I say, a better future (or at least a kinder one). It gives a shining (!) example of how low a nation can get if it lets itself. It seems unlikely, however much we'd like to think otherwise, that Obama would have been elected if Bush had not sunk so low (I accept that is very much a personal opinion, feel free to argur that one). Just thank goodness he was!
    A toast to turning points!

  11. Kimpatsu,

    yes, thanks for the correction, it is indeed "post hoc ergo propter hoc."


    thanks for the kind words, they are much appreciated.

  12. The "Bad Guy" bias is relevant insight to the last paragraph.


  13. Massimo,
    I have another alternative for why we have not been attacked within the U.S. again. Al Qaeda was never as organized and as powerful as they made them out to be. Perhaps they only have the capacity to launch an attack within the U.S. every 8-10 years and probably expended most of their resources on the 9-11 attack.

    I agree mostly with what you write here, but I have some questions about some specifics.

    "Secondly, and more seriously, perhaps some of the other things we have been doing in terms of national defense since 9/11 are actually responsible for the lack of attacks on US soil, like two wars being fought on foreign soil, or billions spent in enhanced border security."

    Maybe you are just throwing these out there as alteratives. The invasion of Afghanistan certainly disrupted Al Qaeda. But the war in Iraq? I doubt that had anything to do with not being attacked, but instead probably added to the possible Al Qaeda recruitment pool.

    "Third, and most damning of all, the Bush administration (under Cheney) ceased the use of torture in 2004."

    Where do you get this idea? And do you neccessarily believe it? Perhaps the officially aknowledged "enhanced interrogation" ended in 2004.

    Extra-ordinary rendition programs to secret prisons plus other incidents of torture or at least complicity with torture may have continued past 2004.

    According to recent reporting by Jeremy Scahill, torture is probably ongoing.


  14. Darn it, Sheldon. I've been meaning to do a post about that Democracy Now episode for a few days now - but now you've beaten me to it.

    I noted the Gitmo rapid response team beating an undercover soldier to the point that he has lasting brain injury in a review of Inside the Wire I wrote several years ago and wanted to follow up on that.

  15. I am in complete agreement that torture interrogation does not provide accurate information, and is thus a non-starter. I'm not sure the legal argument is as cut and dry as you present it. From Wikipedia:

    In the United States, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 codified the legal definition of this term and invested the U.S. President with broad discretion to determine whether a person may be designated an unlawful enemy combatant under United States law. The assumption that such a category as unlawful combatant exists is not contradicted by the findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Celebici Judgment. The judgment quoted the 1958 ICRC commentary on the Fourth Geneva Convention: Every person in enemy hands must be either a prisoner of war and, as such, be covered by the Third Convention; or a civilian covered by the Fourth Convention. Furthermore, "There is no intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can be outside the law,"[4] because in the opinion of the ICRC, "If civilians directly engage in hostilities, they are considered 'unlawful' or 'unprivileged' combatants or belligerents (the treaties of humanitarian law do not expressly contain these terms). They may be prosecuted under the domestic law of the detaining state for such action."I seem to recall the W Admin trying to use the label to excuse... just about anything. I don't know much about legal maters, so I'll leave this as an open question: how does the "unlawful enemy combatant" status affect the protections provided by the 18th Amendment and the United Nations Convention against Torture?

  16. Just out of curiosity, say a hypothetical situation exists, where torturing one specific person will most definitely yield information that will allow 1000+ people to be saved. All laws aside, would you still be against it?

  17. Yes, because the scenario begs the question by assuming we can know in advance when such a scenario arises.

    I might be inclined to say yes for the hypotethical situation, but this is the same way I might condone Batman rounding up criminals extralegally.

  18. The unlawful enemy combatant status is highly dubious. Philippe Sands wrote a whole book about how specious the legal reasoning the administration use is; and the book has subsequently become the basis of the criminal probe of 6 key Bush officals that is underway in Spain.

  19. But that's the precondition: you know in advance that in this specific instance torture will bring about desired results (save lives).

  20. Right. Like I said, in that scenario, where we magically know lives will be saved and we magically know the person is guilty of something, I might be inclined to say yes (it still doesn't set aside the moral issue of torturing someone ... and I'm not someone comfortable with using utilitarian reasoning to rationalize barbarity.)

    It's like the scene in LA Confidential where Russel Crowe plays Russian roulette with the kidnapper to get the location of the rape victim. Within the context of that film's imaginary world it doesn't bother me so much, in the real world there's no way in hell I'm going to condone that, much less argue that police should be able to use that tactic as a routine law enforcement tool.

    That's what so many of the pundits seeking to normalize torture don't get; they arguments about "saving lives" would work justify as well to justify torture as a domestic law enforcement tool. And Darius Rejali has noted that such practices do end up migrating onto the domestic scene.

  21. Also,

    The scenario presumes in its utilitarian calculus that the benefits outweight the unintended consequences. We can't know in reality how many lives might be lost as a result of making torture conditionally acceptable, how less secure we might be in a society that has less respect for the 8th amendment (as one that tortures must necessarily have.)

  22. The reason the US military exists at all is to protect "life". (innocent) Human life to be exact. But if your concept of how life began has something to do with abiogenesis, you are not going to mind when people cannot differentiate or show preference for people who's only goal is to preserve and protect life vs those whose only goal is to destroy and undermine reasons to preserve and protect life.

    So, yeah, origins definitely plays a role on how you'll decide what is "right" for the military to protect.

    NOW...if you would like the only THREE terrorists who were water boarded to be able to take up residence in YOUR basement and you'll happily set up and soup kitchen and lodging for these wacked out guys-be my guest.

    It won't be long before we figure out that it is a lot easier to theorize about what is wrong with conservative policy makers, then to live with the ACTUAL results of ones own (untried and unproven) policy decisions.

  23. caliana,

    There are only three types of people who would make such an irrational comment:
    - trolls
    - right wing propagandaists like O'Reilly and Limbaugh
    - those who mindlessly parrot right wing propagandaists like O'Reilly and Limbaugh

    Regardless of which you are, you're going to have to think a little harder about what you write if you want us to take you seriously.

  24. The man whose interrogation methods led to the strike that killed Zarqawi says that Cheney is full of it, Cal.

    LinkThirdly, the former vice president never mentioned the Senate testimony of Ali Soufan, the FBI interrogator who successfully interrogated Abu Zubaydah and learned the identity of Jose Padilla, the dirty bomber, and the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) was the mastermind behind 9/11. We'll never know what more we could have discovered from Abu Zubaydah had not CIA contractors taken over the interrogations and used waterboarding and other harsh techniques. Also, glaringly absent from the former vice president's speech was any mention of the fact that the former administration never brought Osama bin Laden to justice and that our best chance to locate him would have been through KSM or Abu Zubaydah had they not been waterboarded.

    In addition, in his continued defense of harsh interrogation techniques (aka torture and abuse), VP Cheney forgets that harsh techniques have ensured that future detainees will be less likely to cooperate because they see us as hypocrites. They are less willing to trust us when we fail to live up to our principles. I experienced this firsthand in Iraq when interrogating high-ranking members of Al Qaida, some of whom decided to cooperate simply because I treated them with respect and civility.
    The former vice president is confusing harshness with effectiveness. An effective interrogation is one that yields useful, accurate intelligence, not one that is harsh. It speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of interrogations, the goal of which is not to coerce information from a prisoner, but to convince a prisoner to cooperate.

    Finally, the point that is most absent is that our greatest success in this conflict was achieved without torture or abuse. My interrogation team found Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaida in Iraq and murderer of tens of thousands. We did this using relationship-building approaches and non-coercive law enforcement techniques. These worked to great effect on the most hardened members of Al Qaida -- spiritual leaders who had been behind the waves of suicide bombers and, hence, the sectarian violence that swept across Iraq. We convinced them to cooperate by applying our intellect. In essence, we worked smarter, not harsher.

  25. Great article Massimo. Since we're into nit picking corrections, if my latin is correct hoc is a declination of his, this, not that. That is rendered by ipse and ille. Thus it's after this, therefore because of this.

  26. "some of whom decided to cooperate simply because I treated them with respect and civility."

    Worth noting that Harry Potter helped get Zarqawi. Alexander obtained one of the Harry Potter books for him to read. For the second time - this AQI figure was a big fan of the Potter series.

  27. Jackie

    4) Respect for life. The defense of it is always a 'highest good' kind of cause.

    If you're not starting on good and reliable premise for the respect for human life, the defense of it is not really going to make much sense to you, no matter who happens to be saying it.

  28. Going to war with Iraq based on lies was definitely not an example of "Respect for Life."

    The record is pretty clear, when it comes to "Respect for Life" neither this country nor conservatives have a very good track record!

  29. Caliana, the implications of evolution and abiogenesis do not make human life less worth saving. They allow humans, and any rational creature, to come to value it so much more. It places our values even more into the realm of rationality.

    Also, I'm quite certain that a super-max prison is one of the farthest things from my basement.

  30. caliana,

    My respect for life has little baring on my stance on torture. My stance on abiogenesis has little to do with my respect for life. Your comments are composed of red herrings, non sequiturs and arguments from emotion. ("Terrorists in my basement" is an argument from emotion that is only vaguely related to original post.) If you can't make an argument that is related to the post, logically sound, or at least coherent, I'm not going to bother responding.

  31. If you can't make an argument that is related to the post, logically sound, or at least coherent, I'm not going to bother responding. If you spend some time reading this blog (and the comments), you'll know that Cal's comments are all to the same tune, no matter what you say to her, and you won't sway her one way or the other. Arguing with her is like playing tennis with a wall: you may not lose, but you definitely won't win.

    Either way, it's best to just ignore her :)

  32. If Massimo's blog here is like a village, then Cal is like our village idiot. Sometimes its fun to engage in some banter with her, but when you get tired of it just come into the pub for a drink. We watch her through the window and laugh as she wags here holier than thou finger at us. :)

  33. I feel obligated to say it's not nice to call someone a village idiot. Unless you're a bumper sticker talking about a certain village missing its idiot, perhaps.

  34. I have another alternative for why we have not been attacked within the U.S. again. Al Qaeda was never as organized and as powerful as they made them out to be. Perhaps they only have the capacity to launch an attack within the U.S. every 8-10 years and probably expended most of their resources on the 9-11 attack.Sheldon, I was having the same discussion with some people on the train home from Jamaica, Queens on 9/11. They seemed to be under the impression that there were legions of terrorists already in the United States ready to commit more acts of mayhem. I told them that the acts committed that day were carried out by a small number of people. I'm happy to see that I was right.

  35. Jordan,
    You are correct, it wasn't nice. All I can say in my defense is that there is some history here going back several years. Hundreds of comments from Cal have led me to say things like that. And its true, although that is no reason to get into the habit of saying it, which I won't.

  36. Hi Massimo,

    As a conservative (though I must confess to becoming less conservative in my views over time, primarily as a result of trying to wrap my brain around your bullet-proof logic over the years), I agree with most of what you say. But I have one nit to pick.

    You say:

    “Americans keep thinking of themselves as a shining example for the rest of civilization, just like colonial Britain and the Roman empire did. Evidently they forget that their country got started with a combination of genocide and ethnic cleansing, prospered financially on the back of slaves, has had a history punctuated by an almost uninterrupted series of wars of aggression, and has been marred by ugly civil rights strife that is not over yet.”

    Is this a bit of a cynical view? Might it not also be correct (or, at least, not irrational) to say:

    “Americans have always tried to be a example to the rest of civilization. It fought a bitter civil war to confront and eliminate slavery, which ultimately gave rise to a robust civil rights movement that has led it to being the only multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country in the world to peacefully elect a member of a minority to its highest office (by a large margin); a country that came to the aid of Europe to help defeat nazism and fascism, helped rebuild most of war torn Europe under the Marshall Plan while claiming no territory or other riches in exchange; has tried to help defend democracy in all parts of the world -- and even when those efforts have been misguided or for less then altruistic reasons -- has continued to engage in lively debate and suffer the scrutiny of its own critics and the rest of the world. (And often changes its course as a result.)”

    Now, I’m no fan of Bush or the Iraq war. I have two sons in the military, and one reason I voted for Obama (well, besides the obvious) was the hope he wouldn’t engage us in a superfluous war that will put my OWN treasure at risk. But I wonder why Americans under go such self-flagellation over our (sometimes profound) missteps, and so willing to paint our entire history as the evil aggressors. I think a close comparison of the history of the Roman Empire and the history of the US would make America look quite benign...

  37. Dan,

    thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, of course there are plenty of good things about America. I should know, since I chose to live here.

    But I was reacting toward what frankly comes across all too often as Americans' own ignorance about the dark side of their past (both recent and more remote), which breeds too facile an attitude of "I am holier than thou," which in turn certainly doesn't endear the US to the rest of the world.

    That said, your point is well taken.

  38. Good post, good comments

    A couple of Time articles that came out recently related to this issue:

    How to make terrorists talk -- and to the disappointment of Cal-like conservatives, it does not involve violence... more like sugar-free cookies.

    Dick Cheney: Why So Chatty All of a Sudden?To the "new" visitors to the blog: just do as we "old-timers" do and skip Cal's comments. They are sometimes funny (in a sad way), but almost never contribute anything to the discussion. Don't waste your time. Unless you're just throwing troll-bait for fun, in which case go ahead. As I like to say now (paraphrased from a recent Dilbert cartoon): she keeps failing the Turing test...


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