The Real Torture Debate

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I keep meaning to comment on this Rasmussen poll about how Americans love torture:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% oppose the use of such techniques, and another 12% are not sure.

Predictably enough, I disagree. But agree or disagree, what I really wanted to draw attention to was how different this discussion is from the debater’s gambit arguments we’re used to having about ticking time bombs and city-destroying nuclear weapons. The fact that Abdulmuttalab was on that plane, alone, with a not-very-impressive explosive stuffed down his pants is about the best proof you can think of that al-Qaeda doesn’t have a massive nuclear weapon hidden somewhere beneath Manhattan that they’re about to set off. The guy may or may not have some information that would be useful to intelligence officials, but he clearly doesn’t have specific information about imminent attacks. The idea being endorsed here is really just routinized use of torture as an investigatory technique.

At any rate, I would be interested to know how far the public—or how torture-loving conservative elites—would be willing to go on this. In a lot of ways terrorism cases strike me as unusually unpromising venues for torture. Something more banal like trying to get a low-level drug dealer to spill the beans on his supplier could really work. My view is that routinized deployment of brutality by government officials isn’t going to produce any systematic gains, so it doesn’t make sense to uncork this kind of treatment on Abdulmuttalab or Generic Drug Dealer X. But for torture enthusiasts is there anything special about terrorism suspects?