One issue that’s been bothering me for a long time is the use of torture. It disturbs me that it’s an issue at all. Not only is it obviously evil, it’s worthless.
There’s one popular scenario a lot of pro-torture people will bring up, often called the Ticking Time Bomb scenario: There’s a bomb about to go off, you have a suspect in custody, and allegedly the only way to stop the bomb is to torture the suspect for information. It’s never as simple as they think it is.
Frankly, that scenario is one where torture is especially unlikely to work. Let’s say the bomb is set to go off in two hours. All the terrorist has to do is grit his teeth and endure, or even better, he can pretend to crack and lie about the bomb’s location, leading the bomb squad on a wild goose chase. The terrorist’s mission is a success, the interrogator has demonstrated his panic, desperation, and willingness to abandon the principles of a just society. If the story gets out, you embolden the terrorists because you’ve shown your weakness and desperation. Some people who sympathized with the terrorists’ goals but not their methods might just decide it’s now necessary to cross the line. Let’s say you charge the terrorist in a court: You’ve already tainted the evidence. If you’re willing to torture, how can the court trust that you didn’t tamper with other evidence? In such a case, you’ve sabotaged your case and the legal process. You’ve also undermined the trust of people who know where torture leads. Torturing a suspect only aids the enemy.
Let’s decrease the time on the bomb. Nope, that only makes it easier to resist. It’s easier to endure an hour of torture than two. Let’s go the opposite route, and say that the bomb’s going to go off in 48 hours. The problem with deception still remains. A terrorist can “crack,” tell a lie, and probably catch a break every time the interrogator believes the lie. The bomb squad has to get to the fake site, search, and fail to find the bomb before the interrogator has reason to continue. Continue this long enough, and the interrogator might start disbelieving the terrorist if he does end up telling the truth.
Now let’s stretch the time to weeks. Suddenly, the urgency isn’t so great. With more time, there’s more incentive to use more humane (and effective) means of interrogation. You can grill the suspect methodically and get him to blurt out accidental hints. You can play tricks on him. You can tell him just how bad his prison sentence will be if he doesn’t cooperate and then leave him alone to contemplate his fate. You can appeal to his buried empathy and make him realize that the bomb is going to kill and maim ordinary people, not political straw men, and possibly trigger a bout of remorse.
Now, here comes what might be the most important part of this post: What if he doesn’t know? What if he’s a grunt who just runs minor errands for the terrorists? What if he was an innocent who didn’t realize his co-worker was a terrorist? That’s when the insidious side of torture comes into play: It doesn’t make people tell the truth. It makes people say whatever it takes to stop the torture. You can’t extract the truth from a person who doesn’t know it. People with great strength of will might be able to keep truthfully expressing their ignorance or innocence, but that’s not what the torturer wants to hear. The ones who can’t endure are therefore strongly encouraged to lie and tell the torturer whatever he wants to hear.
Torture encourages short-term thinking in its victims. Humans naturally prioritize getting out of an existing crisis over preventing a future one. An innocent who falsely confesses under torture is effectively denied the ability to think rationally and about the long term because he’s kept in panic mode. He isn’t thinking about being sent to prison, he’s thinking about how to stop being drowned by a waterboarding interrogator. The grunt who committed minor crimes isn’t thinking about being sentenced for planting a bomb. If the courts are corrupted or fooled into accepting a false confession, you will have ruined someone’s life for no reason other than covering your own ass.
The use of torture also has an effect on the interrogators. There’s a heavy bias towards assuming guilt as it is. Torture only serves to reinforce that bias. For an innocent suspect, a confession is almost an inevitability, and praise is heaped on the interrogator for doing his “job” of extracting confessions, when his real job is supposed to be extracting the truth.
The fact that the US is still involved in torture and that torturers are being protected by the State Secrets Privilege fills me with disgust. It’s bad enough that cops are already proficient at extracting false confessions, prosecutors have every advantage over public defenders, and politicians resist reform for the sake of being “hard on crime.” I worry that torture could become more mainstream. It’s bad enough, given what I heard about Jack Bauer.