Torture Still Doesn’t Work


I got an email the other day objecting to my April 22 blog post “Torture Still Doesn’t Work” making the following argument:

Your blog headline is laughably ignorant in stating that torture doesn’t work. It does when used to pursue specific knowledge. Specific knowledge such as your credit card pin number. Do you honestly mean to say that someone drilling into your knee cap with a power drill would be unable to make you talk? Seriously? In an era when humans so clearly can’t handle pain- of any sort. Have you not seen all the pain killers in a drug store?

This proves way too much. Suppose you see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on the street wearing a watch, and you want to get him to tell you what time it is. Well, you could threaten to drill into his knee cap unless he tells you. Or you could just ask him. So, yeah, someone who drilled my knee would get me to divulge my credit card number. Or you could just threaten to drill me. Or, you know, slam me against the wall a bunch or hang me from shackles or drown me. But you could also probably just take much more mild measures.

But lets think about a more realistic analogy. Suppose a Fox News producer was holding me hostage and torturing me to get me to reveal the links between George Soros, Think Progress, and NBC News in a vast conspiracy to subvert Bill O’Reilly. I would, I think, quickly “break” and tell him everything I know. But what I know isn’t what he wants to hear. After all, he already “knows” all kinds of stuff there’s a “well coordinated, well financed cabal” that we’re involved with. He doesn’t want to know what I know, he wants confirmation of what he already thinks he knows plus some additional juicy details.

So I’ll tell him the truth and he’ll conclude that I’m lying or holding out on him. Then I’ll start lying and trying to tell him what I think he wants to hear. Some of what I say will be what he already “knows” and he’ll be happy. But then he’ll check out some of the other stuff I told him, and it won’t check out because I was just making it up to get him to stop torturing me. Then he figures out that I’ve been lying to him, so he tortured me some more. Then I try to explain that, yes, yes, I was lying but only to get him to stop torturing me! Really, I was telling the truth the first time! But of course nobody’s going to believe that. I’m just doing more holding out. So he needs to devise some additional “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

And he’ll make me talk allright! I’ll say tons of stuff. And he’ll waste time trying to verify baseless leads. And any inaccurate suppositions he already has will be confirmed. Sometimes he may wind up making a mistake, and “confirming” made up stuff I tell him. And he’ll get true stuff out of me, too. Some of it he won’t believe and some of it he will.

Whether or not he winds up with more information than he had pre-torture basically comes down to how many false preconceptions did he have before he started torturing me. But the opportunity cost is going to be large, and the overall quality of the information is going to be much worse than what it could have been if he’d used real investigative methods.