Friday, December 14, 2007


Yesterday, we considered the notion of torture and the ticking time bomb. John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent, admitted publicly last week that our government has waterboarded at least one al Qaeda suspect. Kiriakou said that he now considers the practice to be a form of torture, but he also insisted that it saved lives in this particular case. While he never spoke of ticking bombs, Kiriakou's subtext seemed clear: torture was a necessary evil, used sparingly and only in cases where there was no other way to prevent imminent terrorist attacks.

While most Americans despise torture in principle, many support the idea of employing enhanced interrogation techniques as a last resort. No less a public figure than Bill Clinton has expressed sympathy for this perspective. Referencing the lead character on Fox's "24", the former president suggested "that if you're the Jack Bauer person, you'll do whatever you do and you should be prepared to take the consequences…[which] will be imposed based on what turns out to be the truth." Bad information: war crimes tribunal; good information: no harm, no foul.

The problem with the ticking time bomb scenario, of course, is not that torture doesn't work. It's that this is the precise scenario under which it is least likely to work. Let's assume for the moment that terrorists are rational, at least insofar as they have goals that they wish to accomplish, and that they weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. Under normal circumstances, their primary short-term objective is the successful implementation of attacks against U.S. civilians (their long-term goals may include some political arrangement, revenge, or even sadism; for our immediate purposes, it doesn't matter).

Upon capture, our rational terrorist finds himself subjected to torture, in this case waterboarding. This changes his calculations somewhat because his animal instinct for survival and fear of drowning temporarily supersede his commitment to the anti-American cause. He wants the torture to stop and so he makes the decision—under great duress, obviously—to talk. We might summarize his preference ordering, from his most to least desirable outcome, as follows:

1. Stop the torture without compromising the mission
2. Stop the torture even though it may compromise the mission
3. Allow the torture to continue

Since the true ticking time bomb scenario involves the urgent need for information, it provides the terrorist with the best opportunity to achieve his first, and most preferred, objective. That is, he can lie. If the bomb is set to explode in two hours, he can tell the interrogators that it has been placed in San Francisco and then wait, torture-free, for Chicago to explode. There may, of course, be a possibility, at least in his mind, that he will be punished harshly for this deadly duplicity, but once the bomb goes off, further torture would obviously be gratuitous, and he knows this.

By contrast, torture is likely to be far more effective in cases where information is needed, but that information will be just as useful next week or the week after as it is right now. This, in fact, defines the situation described by Kiriakou. The CIA interrogators wanted to know where to find 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The detainee did not want to provide that information. But he knew that if he fabricated an answer to their question, they would follow his lead, realize that they had been fooled, and commence the second round of waterboarding. Thus, he had a strong incentive to give up the information as soon as possible, since lying would result in the realization of his least preferred objective, i.e., further torture.

This is an important point. If, in fact, we choose to torture, it will almost certainly occur—or at least find its greatest success—in cases where even Jack Bauer might demur. Kiriakou's colleagues did not waterboard their prisoner because they had to. They did it because they could.

The real threat, the slippery slope leading to inhumanity as routine, comes with the redefinition of imminent danger. One could argue, after all, that al Qaeda ceaselessly plots the death of Americans and the destruction of their cities. Thus, any capture of a significant, or maybe even an insignificant, terrorist potentially saves lives. By that reasoning, however, the time bomb is always ticking and torture is always justified.

This also renders absurd Kiriakou's bizarre claim that we no longer need to employ waterboarding because al Qaeda has been involuntarily downsized to the point that they are no longer a serious threat. Presumably, even a diminished al Qaeda still conspires against us. The difference between fifty imminent threats versus, say, ten quickly vanishes if even one of the ten comes to fruition. And it's not as though we've captured Osama bin Laden yet.

The goal of the torturer is always to make the aberrant (and abhorrent) seem normal. First, he persuades us to accept the practice under the direst circumstances, the ticking time bomb scenario. Then he convinces us that imminent threats perpetually surround us. Finally, with each additional revelation, from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo to Kiriakou, we find ourselves increasingly reacting with resignation rather than shock. Pundits minimize the offense—the torture is brief, it leaves no lasting damage, the thugs deserve it—and reassure us of our transcendent righteousness. We grit our teeth and accept that we simply inhabit a different, nastier world from the one in which we were raised, a world that requires tough men with the guts to make unsavory choices.

Mission, as they say, accomplished.

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