Saturday, January 15, 2005

A Tortuous Debate, Part Two: Coercion and the Art of Interrogation

Torture is morally repugnant to Americans and most freedom-loving people. We reflexively recoil from the barbarism of it, and consider it beneath our dignity to even discuss. Consider it we must, however, for the enemy in the War on Terror will not meet us on the battlefield, where the odds are so heavily stacked in our favor. To quote Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo, and this excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly:
To counter an enemy who relies on stealth and surprise, the most valuable tool is information, and often the only source of that information is the enemy himself.
The classic question that illustrates the tradeoff between condemnation of torture and the need for quick information is this: Suppose a terrorist had knowledge of a nuclear device in the heart of New York City. Would torture be acceptable, horrible as it is, in light of the impending death of tens of thousands?

The medieval practices of the rack, burning, and beating are universally condemned by all civilized nations. Bowden instead focuses on what he calls 'torture lite', including:
...sleep deprivation, exposure to heat or cold, the use of drugs to cause confusion, rough treatment (slapping, shoving, or shaking), forcing a prisoner to stand for days at a time or to sit in uncomfortable positions, and playing on his fears for himself and his family.
In 1987, Israel decided that its own quite real version of the ticking time bomb scenario did indeed justify 'moderate' physical pressure.

Bowden interviewed Michael Koubi, the former chief interrogator for Israel's General Security Services. Koubi says most men, when placed under duress, have the following priorities:
1) self, 2) group, 3) family, 4) friends. In other words, even the most dedicated terrorist (with very rare exceptions), when pushed hard enough, will act to preserve and protect himself at the expense of anyone or anything else. "There's an old Arab saying," Koubi says. "'Let one hundred mothers cry, but not my mother�but better my mother than me.'"
Koubi has an answer to the common objection of most opponents of coercion: that it doesn't work, so it is not only repugnant, but useless. Koubi stresses the need for rapid followup if a detail is revealed; if the prisoner is shown that false answers have consequences, he will be less likely to lie.

Still, we're dancing around the crucial questions. Bowden finally addresses them squarely:
Few moral imperatives [as the condemnation of all torture] make such sense on a large scale but break down so dramatically in the particular. A way of sorting this one out is to consider two clashing sensibilities: the warrior and the civilian.

The civilian sensibility prizes above all else the rule of law. Whatever the difficulties posed by a particular sees abusive government power as a greater danger to society. Allowing an exception in one case...would open the door to a greater evil.

The warrior sensibility requires doing what must be done to complete a mission. By definition, war exists because civil means have failed. What counts is winning, and preserving one's own troops. To a field commander in a combat zone, the life of an uncooperative enemy captive weighs very lightly against the lives of his own men. There are very few who, faced with a reluctant captive, would not in certain circumstances reach for the alligator clips, or something else.

"It isn't about getting mad, or payback," says Bill Cowan, [a] Vietnam interrogator. "It's strictly business. Torturing people doesn't fit my moral compass at all. But I don't think there's much of a gray area. Either the guy has information you need or not. Either it's vital or it's not. You know which guys you need to twist."
Bowden clearly believes the logic of the warrior is the one that should prevail in the situation we find ourselves in with Islamic extremists. He then asks:
...why not lift the fig leaf covering the use of coercion? Why not eschew hypocrisy, clearly define what is meant by the word "severe," and amend bans on torture to allow interrogators to coerce information from would-be terrorists? This is the crux of the problem. It may be clear that coercion is sometimes the right choice, but how does one allow it yet still control it?
Upon allowing the use of coercive techniques in 1987, Israel experienced an explosion in their use, to the point that two-thirds of the Palestinian detainees were estimated to have been exposed to moderate physical pressure. Although the procedures had only been approved for ticking-bomb scenarios, clearly the interrogators were taking a very broad view of what constituted such a scenario.

We seem to have reached an impasse; 'light' torture can easily be justified, but rarely controlled. Bowden's solution is essentially the status quo. He believes coercion should be banned but practiced, quietly, behind the scenes. Hypocrisy? Yes, he admits, but lifting the ban, as Israel did, brings out the sadists who respect no limits. By keeping torture illegal, Bowden argues the heavy legal consequences will ensure that it is only used in the most dire of cases, cases that would then allow the investigator a defense of necessity should the matter come to trial. Punishment will remain swift and harsh for those who truly torture to no good end.

Others argue that the ban on torture serves no purpose; given that we know it exists, we should do our best to regulate it. Still others counter that argument by saying that's ridiculous, we know murder occurs as well, but we don't overthrow its prohibition. I'm not comfortable with Bowden's 'wink, wink' solution, though he makes many good points. I would modify his stance slightly. Codify a mandatory review by a civilian court in cases of 'ticking bombs'. Acknowledge that some circumstances force interrogators into difficult moral corners, but let them know their actions will be looked at for justification, and punished harshly if that justification is not apparent to a panel of rank-and-file Americans. Finally, make it clear that under no circumstances is coercion allowed to escalate to life-threating levels. A medical doctor should be close at hand in the event 'moderate physical pressure', to use the preferred phrase, is necessary.

I realize such a stance will make many recoil. As with so many things in this world, I see this through pre- and post-9/11 eyes. My post-9/11 instinct is that harsh times require harsh methods. I don't want to see any more skyscrapers crash and burn in my lifetime; I've already seen two too many.

No comments: