Cosma Shalizi, 11/4/2007: “The object of torture is torture”:
The point of this torture is not to extract information; there are better ways to do that, which we have long used. The point of this torture is not to extract confessions; there are no show trials of terrorists or auto-de-fes in the offing. The point of this torture is to exercise unlimited, unaccountable power over other human beings; to negate the very point of our country, to our profound and lasting national shame.
This, it must be emphasized, is all that torture has ever been good for. Torture did not lead us to Osama bin Laden, and while WMD claims obtained due to torture did lead us into an invasion of Iraq, torture did not actually help the occupying force locate the alleged weapons. And, of course, the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib did immeasurable harm to American troops in the field, and to Iraqi civilians killed by their enraged neighbors. Torture doesn’t work, and that may well be the least of its problems. Even if it did work, it’d be wrong: a violation of law precisely because it’s a violation of very basic moral codes.
Torture doesn’t work because someone being tortured has every incentive not to tell the truth, but to tell the torturer what the torturer wants to hear. As Christopher Hitchens describes his own, voluntary, experience with torture:
The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer.
By “any answer,” he doesn’t just mean “any true answer.” He means “any answer that would end the torture.” He explains:
It may be a means of extracting information, but it is also a means of extracting junk information. [A counterterrorism expert] told me that he had heard of someone’s being compelled to confess that he was a hermaphrodite.
Similarly, I recall a story I read in the Chicago Reader as a student in the ’90s. Around this time, 14 men on Illinois’ death row had been exonerated and released, meaning that more people had been exonerated than executed. And many of the people falsely convicted and sent to be executed were convicted based on confessions obtained through torture. Chicago Reader reporter John Conroy bird-dogged that story, uncovering the long history of torture in Chicago’s police stations, the history of false confessions which resulted, and of criminals never brought to justice because the wrong man was convicted of the crime.
Here’s his account of one such incident:
It was a bond hearing–a session in which a judge is merely supposed to set bail for the accused, not make any determination of guilt or innocence. … Nonetheless Patterson persisted, trying to interrupt the proceedings and finally getting a nod from the judge that he could say something. Without hesitation, he claimed to have been suffocated with a plastic bag.
Two years later, on March 30, 1988, he told his story at some length at a hearing on a motion to suppress his confession. He described his arrest and interrogation as an ordeal that lasted 25 hours. He claimed that upon his arrival at Area Two, he asked for an attorney. None was provided. He claimed that when his interrogators grew tired of his unwillingness to confess to a crime he had not committed, they cuffed his hands behind his back, turned off the lights in the interview room, covered his face with a gray typewriter cover so that he could not breathe, and began beating him about the chest. When the lights were turned back on, the detectives were sitting and standing about the room as they had been before, as if nothing had happened. Patterson says he again asked for an attorney, to no avail, and the detectives said they would repeat the treatment until he cooperated. When he continued in his refusal, he says, the lights went off and the typewriter cover again was placed over his face. “I was trying to find an outlet where I could breathe and they was saying, ‘Well, hold his nose and his mouth.’ And they did that for a minute or two. And they kept on saying, ‘Answer me. Answer me,’ you know. And I wouldn’t say nothing. And then after a while they kept on doing it and they was punching me and stuff and I said, ‘OK, anything you say.’ ” The lights then went back on and the Apache Ranger saw the detectives as they had been before.
At that point, faced with the prospect of going through the suffocation and beating routine repeatedly, Patterson says he stopped resisting. “So I more or like just said, ‘Whatever you say,’ you know. Everything they said I would like, ‘OK, whatever you say.’ They was more or less telling me what was supposed to have transpired at that house, you know, what their theory was about what happened.”
Seemingly assured that their quarry was under their control, the detectives removed his handcuffs, Patterson says, and left him alone for about an hour while they rounded up a state’s attorney. According to Patterson, assistant state’s attorney Kip Owen entered the room with a plainclothes policeman whom Patterson later identified as Jon Burge. Patterson says he asked to speak to Owen alone, and after Burge left asked for an attorney and declined to make a statement. Owen allegedly walked out. Burge walked in, Patterson says, sat down, took out his gun, and put it on the table. Patterson claims that Burge said “you are fucking up,” that things would get worse for him, that if he told of what he’d been through it would be “your word against our word. And who are they going to believe, you or us?” (In a recent interview with the Reader, Owen called this account “absolute nonsense.…I don’t know that I have ever met Jon Burge, ever in my entire life.”)
In Patterson’s account, Burge left the room again and the Apache Ranger found a paper clip on the floor. He used it to scratch two messages into the bench and one into the door frame indicating that he had been tortured and prevented from calling for help. Those messages were later discovered intact by Isaac Carothers, an investigator with the public defender’s office and now 29th Ward alderman. According to an affidavit filed by Carothers, one etching read as follows:
I lied about murders
Police threatened me with
violence, slapped and
suffocated me with plastic
In another from his series of articles, Conroy describes another instance of torture, this time of a man granted re-trial because of police torture, and who was re-convicted without the forced confession (I quote these at length so we know what we’re talking about):
Wilson went on to relate the events of February 14, 1982, from his point of view. He claimed that upon leaving the apartment where the arrest had taken place, Burge told his men not to assault the prisoner, adding “We’ll get him at the station.” When they got to Area 2 headquarters, Wilson said, he was taken into a small room, thrown to the floor, and beaten; then he was kicked in the eye–the kick tore his retina, he said–and someone took a plastic bag out of the garbage can and put it over his head, causing him to suffocate until he bit a hole in the bag. That session ended, Wilson said, when Burge walked in and told the assembled cops that “he wouldn’t have messed my face up, he wouldn’t have messed me up”–in other words, that Wilson’s assailants had screwed up, that they should not have left any marks.
Wilson testified that he was then taken to Interview Room Number 2, and that Burge said something on the order of “My reputation is at stake and you are going to make a statement.” According to Wilson, Detective Yucaitis entered the room a short time later carrying a brown paper bag from which he extracted a black box. Yucaitis allegedly pulled two wires out of the box, attached them with clamps to Wilson’s right ear and nostril, and then turned a crank on the side of the box. “I really can’t explain it,” Wilson said. “The first time he did it, it just hurt. I can’t explain it. When Burge was doing it I can explain more because he did it more.… It hurts, but it stays in your head, OK? It stays in your head and it grinds your teeth.… It grinds, constantly grinds, constantly.… The pain just stays in your head.… It’s just like this light here like when it flickers, it flickers … and your teeth constantly grinds and grinds and grinds and grinds and grinds and grinds. All my bottom teeth was loose behind that, these four or five of them, and I tried to get the doctor to pull them. He said he wouldn’t pull them because they would tighten back up.”
“I kept hollering when he [Yucaitis] kept cranking,” Wilson said, “but he stopped because somebody come to the door, so he went to the door and see what they wanted.” When Yucaitis came back, Wilson said, he put the device back in the bag and left. Wilson testified that Burge returned with the black box about an hour later.
Q: What, if anything, did Commander Burge say when he came into the room?
A: He said “fun time.”
According to Wilson, Burge put one clip on each of his suspect’s ears and started cranking. Although he was handcuffed to a ring in the wall, he said, he could move his shoulders, and so was able to rub the clamps off his ears. “So they got tired of me rubbing the wire off my ear. So he unhandcuffed one of my hands, unhandcuffed the left hand, and he tried to stretch me across the room and the radiator was right there, so he was trying to stretch me across, across the room, and I wasn’t going. So the officer, the other officer was there, he helped him, and they both stretched me across … they hooked me onto the other ring over there.”
Wilson said that he was now unable to rub the clamps off his ears; each of his outstretched arms was handcuffed to a ring in the wall, and between the rings was a radiator that his chest sometimes touched.
A: … So I don’t know if he put it back on my ears or what, but it didn’t last long because he put it on my fingers, my baby fingers, one on one finger and one on the other finger and then he kept cranking it and kept cranking it, and I was hollering and screaming. I was calling for help and stuff. My teeth was grinding, flickering in my head, pain and all that stuff …
Q: While you were stretched across in this fashion, were you aware of whether or not the radiator was hot?
A: I wasn’t paying no attention, but it burned me still. But I didn’t even feel it.… That radiator … it wouldn’t have mattered. That box … took over. That’s what was happening. The heat radiator didn’t even exist then. The box existed.
Q: … After Commander Burge stopped with the crank machine, what happened next?
A: He got the other one out. It’s black and it’s round and it had a wire sticking out of it and it had a cord on it. He plugged it into the wall.… He took it and he ran it up between my legs, my groin area, just ran it up there very gently … up and down, up and down, you know, right between my legs, up and down like this, real gentle with it, but you can feel it, still feel it. Then he jabbed me with the thing and it slammed me … into the grille on the window. Then I fell back down, and I think that’s when I started spitting up the blood and stuff. Then he stopped.
Twice in the course of his testimony about the electrical devices, Wilson came close to breaking down. The first time came after Stainthorp asked, “And when he brought the brown paper bag back, what did he do with it?” Wilson’s reply was, “I want to leave,” and the judge declared a short recess. The second time came a few minutes later, when Wilson said that somehow, during the course of the electroshock, the alligator clip had come loose and he had gotten it in his hand, but the maneuver had done him no good, as he was simply shocked there as well. He lost his ability to continue the story, and was urged by Stainthorp to take a minute and compose himself.
Wilson said that later, after the electroshock was finished, he was taken to another police station for a lineup, and that there he got a mouthful of the lieutenant’s gun. Burge, he said, “was playing with his gun … he was sticking it in my mouth and … he kept doing it, he kept clicking it and he had it in my mouth and stuff. So he finally pulled it out.”
At 6:05 PM, after 13 hours in the custody of Area 2 police, Wilson gave a statement in which he confessed to the murders of officers Fahey and O’Brien. The statement was taken by Assistant State’s Attorney Larry Hyman in the presence of Detective O’Hara and a court reporter. After their departure, Wilson was left alone with another detective and Mario Ferro and William Mulvaney, the two officers assigned to the paddy wagon that was to transport the prisoner to the lockup at 11th and State. On the stand Wilson claimed that he was beaten again at this point, and that his penis was grabbed and squeezed by one of the officers, the same one who would later club him on the head with a gun. Wilson said the detective told Ferro and Mulvaney that when they got to the lockup they should have Wilson put in an occupied cell, so it could be said later that other prisoners had caused his injuries.…
The following morning, Wilson was taken to 26th and California for arraignment and admission to Cook County Jail. Ordinarily jail authorities take only a mug shot of an arriving prisoner. In Andrew Wilson’s case they took pictures of his whole body so as not to be blamed for his injuries. The following day, Dale Coventry, the public defender appointed to defend Wilson, arranged to have more pictures taken of the prisoner, paying particular attention to Wilson’s ears, chest, and thigh.
Blowups of the Coventry photos were the most troubling evidence against Commander Burge. The chest shots showed marks where Andrew Wilson said he had been burned against the radiator. A picture of his thigh showed a very large burn mark as well. The shots of the ears, however, were the most curious: they showed a pattern of U‑shaped scabs that seemed inexplicable unless one believed that alligator clips had indeed been attached to Wilson’s ears.
Conroy’s meditation on how torture was allowed to persist for so long is also important, as is today’s long piece in the New York Times about efforts to treat Iraqis who were tortured by the current and former Iraqi regimes.
Torture’s defenders will be nonplussed by these accounts. Sure, they’ll say, some people will sign false confessions under torture, but what about the scenarios popularized by 24, in which torture is necessary to speedily extract information to stop a bomb.
To my eye, these would be by far the worst cases to use torture, precisely because torture is not guaranteed to get accurate information. A smart terrorist would stop the torture by giving a false location, forcing police to waste time chasing false leads. How many such false leads would a terrorist have to plant in order to prevent the police from finding the real bomb? And if you have the bomb and need the terrorist’s help disarming it, would you really trust disarming instructions obtained under torture? Wouldn’t the terrorist’s smartest move be to insist that you have to cut the blue wire to disarm the device, precisely because he knows doing so will detonate it?
But this is not why I think torture is wrong. Just because something benefits me doesn’t mean it’s morally right. Let us assume that the logic of torture were sound. What, then, if the only way to convince a terrorist to reveal the ticking bomb’s location was not simply to waterboard him, or to tear off his fingernails, or to electrocute him. In this day and age, many bombers have no qualms about sacrificing their own lives, so even extreme torture might not induce them to talk, might only validate their martyrdom complexes.
Maybe dragging in their children would work. And if a little torture might help, then a lot of torture might be better. Maybe if you force the terrorist to watch his children be brutally raped and murdered before his eyes, that would break his spirit and force him to tell you everything.
That doesn’t make rape or murder ethical, any more than it makes torture ethical. Indeed, I’d argue that the willingness to do what’s right even when it’s hard is exactly the measure of a person’s morality.
And by that standard, torture’s defenders fail consistently. So, via Ed Brayton, we find Sam Harris lazily repeating ticking bomb scenario, and arguing (in the context of his claim that morality is scientifically testable), that torture isn’t always immoral. Indeed, he suggests he might even think of a willingness to countenance torture would be more politically important than a political candidate’s willingness to accept basic science:
I’m a liberal through and through, but the idea that we could get to a moment in history where only our crazy demagogues can seem to recognise when there’s a threat — I don’t want to wake up for an election in the US thinking only this crazy conservative who I disagree with in every other point and who denies the truth of evolution, only he would be strong enough to defend civilisation against its genuine enemies. But there’s something about liberal discourse which allows for that possibility.
Except, no. Part of what it means to be civilized is that you don’t torture. If the only way to save civilization is to go around torturing people, then civilization is already lost.
And saying that doesn’t make me a moral relativist (Harris’s complaint against liberals). Saying that makes me not just an advocate of objective morality, but an absolutist on this issue.
Harris is certainly entitled to take a different view, to believe that torture is sometimes immoral and sometimes moral, and to pursue a vision of morality (and of torture) which allows different people to take different moral stances on the matter. But I find it untenable for him to hold himself up as the great defender of objective morality, and the arbiter of a new scientifically based morality, and to simultaneously argue for this wishy-washy attitude towards torture. Indeed, if this is where Harris’s approach to morality leads us, then that’s one more reason not to take him seriously as a moral philosopher.
And, indeed, it’s another reason not to take Jerry Coyne seriously on moral and philosophical matters, since he’s launched a defense of Harris’s position on torture. He quotes extensively from Harris’s writings, (including Harris’s insistence that torture “may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary”), and concludes:
I think Sam has a point here. I’m not yet sure where I come down on torture in circumstances like the above, but I surely think the issue is worth discussing rather than reflexively dismissing. And yes, much of the dismissal has been reflexive–almost an excuse to simply reject all of Harris’s views, just as Hitchens’s stand on Iraq has been used to discredit his opinions on everything, including faith. I can’t help but believe that some of the opposition to Harris’s discussion of torture involves willful misunderstanding of his position, perhaps as an excuse to punish him for his strong critiques of religion.
Now Coyne is not exactly in a position to complain about people using a person’s controversial views on one topic as grounds for dismissing everything else they said. Remember this? In any event, Harris’s latest book is about morality, so it’s hardly irrelevant to press him on his dubious ethical stands. Sure, many religious groups have declared their opposition to torture, but so have many non-religious groups, as have leading atheists like Chris Hitchens. Hitchens was wrong on Iraq but is, perhaps belatedly, right on torture. Harris and Coyne are wrong on torture. Wrong factually, and wrong morally. Coyne lives in Chicago, a city where torture was regularly practiced by police for decades. If he’s been paying attention, he knows the cost it’s imposed on innocent citizens, on the Chicago PD as an institution, and on society as a whole. And if he’s not paying attention, why is he issuing grand proclamations about the motives of torture opponents?
People’s reactions to moral questions are usually reflexive precisely because morality isn’t just about cost-benefit analysis. It’s like the classic Winston Churchill story:
At a dinner party Churchill says to his dinner companion, “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?”
The woman responds, “My goodness, Mr. Churchill. I suppose I would.”
Churchill replies, “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”
She answers, “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?”
Churchill answers, “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”
If the only thing holding you back from committing an atrocity like torture is the size of the payday, then we’ve established what sort of person you are, and everything else is just accounting.
So Harris argues, and Coyne “think[s] Harris has a point”:
There is absolutely nothing in Luban’s argument [against torture] that rules out the following law:
We will not torture anyone under any circumstances unless we are certain, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the person in our custody has operational knowledge of an imminent act of nuclear terrorism.
It seems to me that unless one can produce an ethical argument against torturing such a person, one does not have an argument against the use of torture in principle. Of course, my discussion of torture in The End of Faith (and on this page) only addresses the ethics of torture, not the practical difficulties of implementing a policy based on the ethics.
He’s aiming to set aside practical details, so we’ll ignore the fact that proof “beyond reasonable doubt” (in US law, which is the issue at hand) means a courtroom trial, with all the delay, access to witnesses, and public exposure that entails. We’ll also set aside that if you can convict someone in court against such a stringent standard, and do so in a timely manner, you probably don’t need the testimony anyway; you probably have so much evidence at hand that you can figure out those details on your own, and probably had to figure them out in order to make your legal case (through wiretaps, non-torture interrogations, and a host of other means all practically superior to torture). And, of course, you couldn’t pass such a law because it would go against constitutional protections, not least a right against self-incrimination and a right against cruel and unusual punishment (and this would be punishment, since it requires the equivalent of a criminal conviction first). We’ll ignore the fact that the police in the cases above, and the WMD hunters who employed torture, all believed they had the right person before them, and because they were misled by their own confidence they tortured confessions out of innocent men and women. We’ll even set aside the question of why this is restricted to nuclear terrorism, and not biological or chemical weapons, or a conventional bomb in a sensitive site, or threats against critical infrastructure. The slippery slope is fairly obvious, and regularly traveled once torture is normalized (for instance, John Burge, the officer at the center of the Chicago torture scandal described above, learned his trade as an Army interrogator in Vietnam).
But Harris wants a reply in principle, as if Constitutional protections weren’t established by men who had seen the horrors of state torture, and had just fought a revolution to be free of such abuses. As if, that is, these legal and constitutional protections were not themselves built on long-standing principled arguments. As if the possibility, that one might be wrong (however unreasonable the doubt) was not part of the ethical calculus in such a heinous undertaking. As if that host of practical problems is not symptomatic of a fundamental, principled incoherence.
Making the ethical case against torture is easy. It violates the Golden Rule (I would not want to be tortured, therefore I should not torture others; this is especially relevant for soldiers in the field). It violates the Categorical Imperative (torture must, by its nature, treat a person as a means to an end, not an end unto himself or herself). From a Rawlsian angle, I cannot imagine that torture is something “everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position,” such as from behind the “veil of ignorance” where “everyone is impartially situated as equals.” Indeed, it seems to run against Harris’s own cod-utilitarianism, which is built on the principle that increasing human suffering is a moral wrong, and torture increases suffering.
Whatever angle you take, it’s wrong. If someone’s moral compass can’t point that out, he’s simply lost in the moral landscape.
Image via Back to a Routine of Torture: Torture and Ill-treatment of Palestinian Detainees during Arrest, Detention and Interrogation, by the Public Committee against Torture in Israel (2003). It shows a widely-used torture method called “bending,” which the report explains:
The “bending” method is usually carried out through forcing the interrogee, who is tied to a chair with no backrest (or placed such that the backrest is not behind him), leaning him backward at an angle of 45 degrees or more, for a half hour or more each time. This is often done by applying pressure to the chin or body of the interrogee, in combination with beating, stepping on shackles, etc.