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I'm Screwed

There have been a lot of outraged posts about torture put forth in the blogosphere over the past little while. But Tyler Cowen, while mustering no discernable outrage, offers up the most eye-opening post on the subject I've seen in a while. Read about it and think: If you're picked up and you have every intention of cooperating in order to avoid torture, you're likely to wind up getting tortured no matter what you do!

And, yes, yes, yes, I'm quite sure that each and every instance of torture of committed by the US government, or by third parties at the behest of the US government, was undertaken for the sole purpose of preventing the detonation of a nuclear device in central Manhattan, so it's all okay. Ticking time bombs and all that.

May 5, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on May 5, 2005 1:31:45 AM


Hee hee, you've never been married.

Posted by: jerry | May 5, 2005 1:07:33 AM

The probability of escaping torture on that scenario actually depends on what the torturers know about you. If you are a known figure (let's say a high ranking member of the insurgency) and you spill the beans inmediately, there is a good chance that you can escape, because they have a good idea of what kind of things you know and will be able to tell if you are cooperating or not. On the other hand, if you are a virtual unknown and the interrogators have no idea about what you know, then you are screwed. They can't verify if you are telling them all or not so their best tactic is beat you up until they feel sure that you are not witholding information.

Posted by: Carlos | May 5, 2005 1:19:41 AM

Isn't this exactly why intelligence experts say that no useful intelligence comes from torture?

But assuming you do have some interesting secrets to tell, the trick is to play them back slowly, using small verifiable secrets at first and making sure they pay you back with better treatment, even if all you are doing is incentivizing them to provide you with sodium pentathol and a wire wrapped around your testicles and up your anus.

/john lecarre

Posted by: jerry | May 5, 2005 1:20:39 AM

"What I didn't put in the report was that, at the end, he gave me a choice between a life of comfort, or more torture. All I had to do was say that I could see five lights when in fact there were only four."

"You didn't say it."

Picard tries to reassure her. "No. No." He becomes pensive again, however: "But I was going to. I would have said anything. But more than that, I believed that I could see five lights..."

Posted by: jerry | May 5, 2005 1:25:08 AM

s/and a wire/than a wire/

Posted by: jerry | May 5, 2005 1:26:15 AM

Planning for torture? "Nunca Mas" (comissioned by the Argentine government in the early 80's) was the best book that I have ever read about torture.

It's not about the information.

Most of the pickups were random, and as far as I could tell most or all of the information was random. They sooner or later ratted everyone they ever knew. (For many, this was their most enduring pain from the experience.) The torture for the detainees were completely random. Some lived. Some didn't. Some were released. Some weren't. (This, of course, added to the torture aspect.)

When torture exists as an institutionalized means of population supression, it isn't about information. I pick up 5 people randomly. I kill some number of them between 0 and 4. I let the remainder go after an indeterminate amount of time. I have just thoroughly terrorized thousands of people in a given community.

It's not about the information.

A Chilean friend of mine is still traumatized by the sound of boots stomping. A man upstairs was picked up in a SWAT style invasion. My friend thought the boots were coming to get her communist father. The man upstairs was eventually returned but he was broken after that.

Posted by: Saam Barrager | May 5, 2005 1:50:58 AM

What's the appropriate strategy to use if you're picked up for torture, but don't have the information your torturer is seeking? How can you convince someone that you're cooperating fully, if you're unable to cooperate at all?

I think the best way to convince an objectively pro-torture person of torture's utter depravity is to examine the specifics of torture in just this way.

Posted by: t e whalen | May 5, 2005 2:34:53 AM

I seriously doubt that anyone who is pro-torture will be troubled about what innocent people would do. It's not about the information, it's about the pain and suffering. Why else are there so many torture porn sites on the Internet?

Posted by: MFB | May 5, 2005 4:15:05 AM

"And, yes, yes, yes, I'm quite sure that each and every instance of torture of committed by the US government, or by third parties at the behest of the US government, was undertaken for the sole purpose of preventing the detonation of a nuclear device in central Manhattan, so it's all okay."

Exactly. Just like every cent of tax dollars is collected to keep the proverbial orphan from starving in the street, rather than for displays of "Piss Christ". ;)

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | May 5, 2005 5:25:32 AM

Ah, yes, Bellmore chimes in, to remind us that taxes are the moral equivalent of torture. Get a clue, man!

Posted by: rea | May 5, 2005 6:23:00 AM

OK, here's a real-life torture question for you. Abu Farraj al-Libbi was apparently captured by Pakistan based on intelligence provided by the U.S. Let's assume that's true. Are you OK with that even though Pakistan is alleged to engage in torture?


Or should the U.S. have withheld the information? Assuming U.S. intelligence was involved in the earlier capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, should that have been withheld also? Is providing intelligence to governments that will allow the capture of terrorists morally equivalent to rendition of terrorists to them?

Posted by: mw | May 5, 2005 7:25:51 AM

Saam - spot on comments. Same happened in the Stalinist USSR: initially secret police were hunting for information against counter-revolutionaries (the terrorist analog of that time and place), but very quickly it transofrmed into a very effective tool of terrorizing the population. The real task of collecting informaiton was delegated to small departments withing KGB, which by the way tended to be much less brutal when dealing with people they captured. Many in these departments deeply despised the butchers terrorizing the country

It is not about information

Posted by: MrM | May 5, 2005 7:45:21 AM

Mw, that's an interesting question. Obviously, in a perfect world one should not endorse torture under any circumstances and torturing states would be subject to sanctions. This is not that world.

However, the United States has considerable influence over Pakistan. Would it be impossible for the US to provide Pakistan with the information, on the understanding that the captive would not be tortured? Probably not.

South Africa, incidentally, which is opposed to the death penalty, only extradites people on the understanding that (if convicted) they will not face execution, so there is a precedent for this kind of thing.

Otherwise, it seems sensible to cooperate with other countries in order to act against international crime. Sometimes that requires that one cooperates with countries whose systems you don't approve of. I don't really see that as a huge problem.

Posted by: MFB | May 5, 2005 7:46:24 AM

General Jack D. Ripper: Mandrake, were you ever a prisoner of war?

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Well, yes I was Jack as a matter of fact I was.

General Jack D. Ripper: Did they torture you?

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Yes Jack, I was tortured by the Japanese, if you must know, not a pretty story.

General Jack D. Ripper: Well, what happened?

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Oh Well, I don't know, Jack, difficult to think of under these conditions, but well, they got me on the old Ragoon-Ichinawa railway. I was laying train lines for the bloody Japanese puff-puff's.

General Jack D. Ripper: No, I mean when they tortured you did you talk?

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Ah, oh, no, I don't think they wanted me to talk really, I don't think they wanted me to say anything. It was just their way of having a bit of fun the swines. Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras.

Posted by: Porco Rosso | May 5, 2005 8:37:23 AM

Ticking time bombs and all that.

The mock-a-ticking-bomb thing still rages on. It will probably go on : ticking bombs _are_ after all, the lever to remove moral locks on the military hierarchy.

I'm puzzled that quite a few former pro-war people (belle at CT, drum, matthew, if i'm not mistaken)insistence on rediscovering the ticking bomb each time.

So it was a war that wouldn't put ticking bombs in the mind of lots of people? A war were ticking bomb would never surface anyways?

When you post "how stupid and brutish they are with their ticking bombs", is it possible what you really mean is "i didn't want that"?

Posted by: yabonn | May 5, 2005 9:29:57 AM

Counter-thought experiment: Let's say all "torture" (by which, as we know, lefties mean anything harsher than asking "pretty please tell me") and rendition were completely banned.

Now, you are a terrorist who is picked up by the CIA. What do you do? In this case, it is very simple: never tell them anything at all, ever. What are you going to get from telling them something? Nothing you are interested in. Hence you completely clam up, and the CIA never gets any information from you. This, apparently, is what the lefties think we should prefer.

Torture may not be that effective in getting information. But the credible threat of torture may well be.

Posted by: Al | May 5, 2005 9:50:17 AM

Tyler Cowen falls into the fallacy of trying to put himself into the place of the person selected for torture. They're the evildoers, man! Why are you trying to work out their moves? You're supposed to put yourself in the place of the patriotic information gatherer and ask what Ann Coulter would do (if that's not torture enough).

Posted by: Paul Callahan | May 5, 2005 10:02:33 AM

Bellmore chimes in, to remind us that taxes are the moral equivalent of torture.

Taxes lead inexorably to the establishment of death camps for the rich and powerful (but that was another thread and long after the sane people stopped reading).

If Brett Bellmore understood that I really only meant to move them to collective farms, maybe we could find some middle ground.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | May 5, 2005 10:06:48 AM

Hey Al,

You pathetic shit-stain. Would the credible threat of torture persuade you to STFU already? Christ.

Posted by: drjimcooper | May 5, 2005 10:06:53 AM

Ha -- Red-blooded Americans would use a 6th strategy: Escape, and turn the tables on the torturer, ala James Bond. After all, in a noble cause, God will provide.

Posted by: Dave | May 5, 2005 10:16:22 AM

Back during the days of the Vietnam War, when some of our POW's were tortured to induce them not to give information, which they didn't have, but to make propaganda statements, I suggested to someone that the President go on national television and issue an order that any POW must immediately make any propaganda statement the enemy wanted, thus devaluing in advance whatever any captured soldier said and reducing the incentive to torture.
Nobody thought much of the idea, but nobody ever explained why.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | May 5, 2005 10:21:22 AM

Nobody thought much of the idea, but nobody ever explained why.

It's an interesting thought, but one problem I can think of is that forced propaganda statements don't devalue. They're not that valuable to begin with, since they're obviously forced, but having an endless supply of prisoners willing to spout your mottos is better than just having a few statements.

The fact that they were specifically authorized on TV is not that important. People won't necessarily remember; they'll just see this shocking spectacle of prisoners denouncing their country. And footage can be prepared for an internal audience who may be entirely unaware of the TV order. It seems to provide an incentive to round up prisoners for the sole purpose of getting them to make these statements en masse. It might not increase the amount of torture, but it won't obviously decrease it, and it will hurt in other ways.

Repetition is just too valuable to be hurt by "devaluing." Suppose, for instance that an "order" went out that any liberal being tortured by having to listen to a dittohead yammer on about his terrible tax burden should parrot in a sarcastic tone: "Oh yes, lowering taxes actually increases revenue. The Laffer curve proves this." No matter how well known the order, and no matter how thick the sarcasm, having a lot of liberals repeat this statement would almost certainly work in favor of supply-side zealots.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | May 5, 2005 10:37:55 AM

Even when torture is used to extract information, it is an indirect process. You torture to break the victim's will. Generally, there is never a "stop-the-pain" for information trade. Sometimes those trades take place, but they are just part of the process. It never ends in such a trade. Torturors do not make trades. Only when you can no longer execise any control over what they take from you are they done torturing you - unless they decide to continue for their own sick pleasure.

They break you by getting you to betray your beliefs. One belief might be that you should be strong and loyal to your associates, and not betray information, but that is only part of it. The torturors want you to betray what you love so that you will come to despise yourself.

So, the only way to end the torture is to be broken quickly - to allow yourself to be rendered into a state of self-loathing that will endure until you receive intensive psychological treatment, and possibly beyond. Not a good plan.

Torture resistance training is about maintaining self respect. It is assumed you will give in to the torturors. The key is to do it on your terms, and hide from them that you are doing it on your terms. You choose ahead of time how you will play at betraying whatever it is they are working on. You set a goal for what you will endure. Then, when you make your betrayel after the agreed upon torment, you can feel good about what you have done. They usually start small, and work their way up. Eventually, they start woring on something you feel you can not betray even in a staged manner. You resist as long as you can, then you are broken.

Posted by: Njorl | May 5, 2005 11:03:51 AM

Let's say all "torture" (by which, as we know, lefties mean anything harsher than asking "pretty please tell me"...


Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | May 5, 2005 11:30:49 AM

Exactly. Just like every cent of tax dollars is collected to keep the proverbial orphan from starving in the street, rather than for displays of "Piss Christ". ;)

Brett Bellmore lost all moral and intellectual credibility during the Schiavo matter.

Posted by: SavageView | May 5, 2005 11:45:04 AM

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