What Doesn’t Work About Torture

My colleague-who-I’ve-never-actually-met Mark Bowden writes in defense of waterboarding for The Philadelphia Inquirer and, I think, misstates the “torture doesn’t work” thesis in the course of it: “Opponents of torture argue that it never works, that it always produces false information.”

This is a strawman that’s easy enough to knock down. The thesis that “torture doesn’t work” isn’t the thesis that one can never torture a guy into saying something that’s true. In the limiting case, if you capture a guy who you think is a terrorist but who is not, in fact, a terrorist and then torture him into giving up information about plots the victim will, at some point, plead that he doesn’t know anything. The question, though, is whether or not torture enhances your overall knowledge of the situation. The problem with torture isn’t that it’s some kind of truth-negator that makes people lie. The problem is that it just makes people talk and talk and talk and talk until you stop torturing them. Will some of the information be good? Possibly. Will any of it be reliable? No.