Let’s Talk about Revenge: Some Thoughts on Torture – the Sequel

Let’s Talk about Revenge…..

The Senate Intelligence Committee report recently released that detailed Enhanced Interrogation Techniques by the CIA and various contractors, as part of the an intelligence gathering effort in the wake of the attacks on 9/11.[1] Debate ensued in the Social Media and in the press about this report, its motivations, the timing and also the content of the details. Polls still show majority support for these activities and also a belief that they in fact ‘worked,’ despite Brennan’s own contention that whether the information gleaned could have been got in other ways was ‘unknowable’ and numerous interrogator experts claimed that torture does not in fact ‘work.’ Aside from the efficacy debates, there are the moral questions about whether it is ever permissible to breach basic human dignity and human rights, even of alleged terrorists. (Yes, alleged. Unless I missed something there have not been trials or other judicial proceedings prior to these ‘enhanced interrogations’ to establish guilt. Ergo ‘suspected’ terrorists.)

Much of the focus in the debate in the recent weeks, as well as in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and again in 2008 when there was a presidential election where Guantanamo Bay and its detainees were in the national discourse has been around the efficacy of torture over and against arguments that there is a universal moral taboo here that ought never be breached and some suggestions, even in academic circles, that to even discuss the issue was tantamount to admitting torture was permissible. As a philosopher, it is clear that we are playing out the classical utilitarian versus Kantian, universal principle debate that also finds its expression in the trolley thought experiment and pretty much every episode of every Star Trek ever.

I find that much of this debate rather misses the point. The utilitarian arguments about the efficacy of such techniques are based upon shaky epistemological foundations. A cursory examination of the Ticking Time Bomb scenario often used to justified torture of ‘known terrorists,’ who are rarely Americans and if they are they are almost always of brown skin and some version of an Other religious or cultural tradition, as reflected in the popular culture renderings of such scenarios – taking the television show 24 as only one example. These scenarios depend for their intuitive appeal on Othering the ‘terrorist’ (its never my mother or someone who looks likes like the popular conception of “All-American) and also on knowing things that one cannot and does not know in these situations. One ‘suspects’ that this person is a terrorist (why?), that they have planted a device (how does one know this?) and that it will kill thousands/millions (how does one know this?). I am using ‘know’ deliberately as this scenario is always presented in terms of this epistemological certainty and never seriously entertains the idea that there might be doubts about the premises of the scenario, because if there were, that would undermine the justification for using such drastic coercive techniques that are normally prohibited and with good reason. They violate basic human dignity, are repulsive and uncivilized on every level.

And the other side of the argument fairs no better as it tends to come across as impractical, with pacifistic undertones and generally ignoring what many take as hard realities and choices that one has to make in dire circumstances. Charles Krauthammer’s piece “The Truth About Torture” on this summed up the general objections to the Kantian, universalist view: these ‘terrorists’ are uncivilized Barbarians and ‘deserved’ (his term) to be tortured.[2] They were guilty of crimes against humanity and this was the punishment that they had earned. Even Brennan’ s recent comments reflected this idea that people were angry and that there was a desire for revenge and retribution.

It is here that I think the heart of the debate really lies as I argued in “To Debate or Not to Debate: A Question of Torture.”[3]   For the record, I disagree with Krauthammer, but he reflects what I think is a common feeling in the public at the time of the 9/11 attacks, a view that if the polls are correct, still persists to this day. Americans generally think two things: that torture is justified and that it works. Having addressed the justification issues, let’s look at the second issue. To say that torture works means that these techniques regularly, consistently and reliably render actionable intelligence in the relevant time frame. Numerous interrogational and intelligence experts have gone on record, and even Brennan seems to agree, that this is not the case – at least not in the reliable, consist way that would be required for the moral calculation to come out positively. This cannot be a question of one extraordinary event, but as a matter of policy (which it clearly is) whether it yields the kind of intelligence needed, that cannot be achieved in any other way. Presumably for this to work out, we would need interrogators who were professionals at these kinds of techniques; yes, that means professional, trained and ethical torturers who would be subject to oversight and would receive support and training for this task they are doing on our behalf, for the greater good.

And while we are at it, we should have some kind of legal proceedings to decide when such measures are to be used, because I don’t want y’all torturing my mother because she was at the local mosque….oh wait, are you feeling queasy yet? Professional trained torturers? Torture warrants a la Alan Dershowitz? Torture is what totalitarian and authoritarian regimes (that we don’t like and that we level substantial criticism against on the basis of moral principle and human rights) do. Democracies don’t do this kind of thing, right? Or we do it and don’t admit it, right? If you are going to make an omelet , you need to break some eggs and get your hands dirty, right?

Huh. Tricky….. so we can have a professional, official policy of torture as part of our War on Terror that seems to be at odds with our basic principles or we can have an official, haphazard, possibly effective in some cases, but often ineffective and sometimes will torture innocent people that we generally pretend to be shocked at but would never dream of prosecuting anyone for because well…..

The problem, as this philosopher sees it, is that this is not about interrogation at all. Or at least it is not about interrogation as a means to get reliable, actionable intelligence in a reasonable amount of time. There are plenty of effective ways to get intelligence, but they are not sexy, do not follow the 24 scenario and they take time, intelligence and professionalism to achieve. But that does not satisfy. Why not?   To repeat: because this is not about getting information. This is about revenge and retribution for perceived crimes; crimes which have not been established in a court of law where evidence and opposing attorneys are required and there is a presumption of innocence. John Brennan and Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” have it right. In the wake of 9/11, even my allowedly pacifist colleagues who had a mere 6 months before vehemently opposed becoming a host institution for the Army ROTC, were asking why we had not bombed Afghanistan yet. People were angry and wanted revenge and retribution for the ‘crimes’ that had been committed. The interrogations and the gathering of evidence were occasions for this revenge and retribution, they were not the reason for the violence. Why else broadcast pictures of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, other than as ‘deterrent’ and a mechanism of terror. The pictures from Abu Gharib, the descriptions of methods in the new report which shocked some, but not many who had heard reports like this for years coming from human rights groups and other. These are methods designed to break and degrade, which are not ways to get reliable, accurate information; if you put me in a room with a screaming toddler, I will tell you anything you want to know –true or not. If we look at history and who uses torture (pick your favorite) , how they use it and also the level of publicity that accompanies it, the picture is pretty clear. While information might be gained, the point of the torture is terror, intimidation, control – to degrade the humanity of the victim and create fear and uncertainty in the victim and community.

I leave you with my favorite: the Empire from the film The Empire Strikes Back. Having capture Han Solo and his companions, he is subjected to a version of electroshock as an enhanced interrogation technique. After the session, clearly damaged and not himself, he observes, “They didn’t even ask me any questions.”   Of course not. It’s not about information.

[1] See

[2] See Sanford Levinson, Torture: A Collection. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 307-16.

[3] In The Impact of 9/11 On Religion and Philosophy. Ed. Matthew J. Morgan. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 281-290.

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